In Jewish history, every great teacher became that way because he had at least one able student who was able to receive and absorb that knowledge and, later on, disseminate it for future use. Rebbe Nachman was that teacher. Reb Noson was that student.
Reb Noson Sternhartz was born in 1780 in Nemirov, a city located about nine miles (fifteen kilometers) from Breslov (a full day’s journey by horse and wagon in Rebbe Nachman’s time). A budding young Torah scholar, Reb Noson was the son-in-law of Rabbi Dovid Zvi Ohrbach, the foremost halakhic authority of the western Ukraine (Kaminetz-Podolia).
Rabbi Ohrbach was a leading opponent of Chassidut, as was Reb Noson’s immediate family. Still, Reb Noson was drawn to the teachings of Chassidut. When Rebbe Nachman moved to Breslov in September 1802, Reb Noson traveled there and was deeply impressed by the teachings and sincerity of Rebbe Nachman and his followers. He immediately began to record the Rebbe’s teachings. Later Rebbe Nachman himself asked Reb Noson to record his teachings, saying, “We have to be grateful to Reb Noson, for without him, not one page of my teachings would have remained!”
For the next eight years until Rebbe Nachman passed away, despite all the opposition he faced from his family, Reb Noson drew ever closer to the Rebbe. He recorded Rebbe Nachman’s lessons, conversations and stories, and observed the Rebbe up close, from which he later wrote the biographical information that we have. Also during that time, Rebbe Nachman instructed Reb Noson to begin writing his own original discourses and prayers. Reb Noson proved himself to be a deep thinker, a prolific writer and a caring and sensitive soul. Eventually Reb Noson’s wife and family acknowledged the positive impact that Chassidut was having on him and withdrew their opposition.
When Rebbe Nachman passed away in 1810, Reb Noson was perfectly qualified to succeed him. But he preferred to remain the de facto leader, publishing all of the Rebbe’s works and guiding the Breslover Chassidim to fulfill the Rebbe’s directives. He traveled hundreds of miles each year by horse and wagon to visit and encourage Breslover Chassidim living throughout the Ukraine, and wrote many letters strengthening them to keep following Rebbe Nachman’s path.
Even without a living rebbe, Breslov Chassidut expanded and grew. This aroused the jealousy of several of Reb Noson’s Chassidic contemporaries, who felt that a Chassidut must have a living rebbe to guide it. The Breslover Chassidim became the object of terrible opposition and Reb Noson’s life was threatened. Though the opposition grudgingly died down to some extent by the end of Reb Noson’s life, it continued to percolate among both Chassidic courts and Lithuanian schools until today.
In the spring of 1811 Reb Noson moved to Breslov and established the annual Rosh HaShanah gathering in Uman. In 1834 he built a new synagogue to accommodate all the attendees. He merited to see the first volume of his own magnum opus, the Likutey Halakhot, printed in 1843-1844. He passed away on 10 Tevet 5605 (December 20, 1844) and was buried in Breslov.
Reb Noson’s efforts and iron will carved and shaped Breslov Chassidut as we know it. By remaining completely true to his master’s teachings and transmitting them faithfully, he built a movement that connects later generations directly to Rebbe Nachman himself. We can be assured that the ideas we study and find so helpful today are all rooted in Rebbe Nachman’s original teachings and advice given over 200 years ago—with a freshness that makes them seem even more relevant today.