Sunday 15 January 2023

413) Did R. Nachman meet Napoleon?

Napoleon's unsuccessful attempt to siege Acre in 1799


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor David Assaf, looks at the historicity of the claims by a veritable literary tradition that the 26-year-old R. Nachman of Breslov had met with the 29-year-old Napoleon while both were in the Holy Land.[1] 

R. Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810)

The story of R. Nachman’s journey to the Land of Israel in 1798, together with his devoted student R. Shimon, is recorded in various documents by his scribe R. Natan (Reb Nosson) Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780–1844). A summary of the details of the journey follows: 

“They set sail from Odessa for Istanbul, and thence to Haifa, disembarking on September 10, 1798, the eve of Rosh Hashana 5559. After about half a year, R. Nahman decided it was time to return home and they made their way to Acre, arriving there on March 15, 1799, just five days before Napoleon’s army would lay siege to the city. Despite the chaos in Acre, rebbe and disciple managed to stow away on a Turkish warship, which went on to survive two attempts to sink her—one by the French navy, and one by Mother Nature. After a harrowing journey, the vessel docked at Rhodes on April 19, 1799, the eve of Passover, where the local Jewish community ransomed the two stowaways from their Turkish captors. The pair then sailed on to Constantinople, where they caught a boat to Galati, near the Danube Delta in today’s Romania. They completed the rest of the journey on foot. The rebbe celebrated Rosh Hashana 5560, which occurred on September 30, 1799, at home in Russia” (Assaf 2022:55). 

Chayei Moharan 1874

R. Nachman was clearly interested in Napoleon. Towards the end of 1805, Napoleon defeated the Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz. According to Chayei Moharan (R. Nachman’s biography): 

“One time someone had an audience with him [R. Nachman]. He [R. Nachman] said to him: ‘Not a moment ago the minister [of Greece = Yavan = Ivan = Russia][2] and the minister[3] [of France] sought me out. They asked who will emerge victorious. I responded to them: Whoever supports the Jews more will be the victor.’”[4] 

In 1809, R. Natan wrote about how he remembered R. Nachman being surprised at the time of Napoleon’s victory over the Russians a few years earlier “because he started out as a simple servant and had become emperor,” and perhaps Napoleon’s soul had been “switched” at birth “for in the heavenly ‘Palaces of Exchange’ sometimes souls are switched.”[5] 

This fascination with Napoleon notwithstanding, there is no indication from the biography in Chayei Moharan; nor is there any historical evidence that R. Nachman ever met Napoleon or even one of his officers while he was in the Land of Israel. 

“Not only is there no shred of evidence from reliable sources within Bratslav Hasidism…but the very fabric of reality, time, and space, do not allow for it. Simply put, Nahman departed Acre before Napoleon arrived in the area” (Assaf 2022:56). 

R. Yisrael Ber Odesser (1886–1994)

Assaf specifies what he calls “reliable sources” within Breslover literature because there is another Breslover source (although outside of mainstream Breslov) that does indeed claim that R. Nachman and Napoleon met. This source is from R. Yisrael Ber Odesser the founder of the contemporary Na-Nach Breslover movement, who said: 

“When our holy rabbi was in the Land of Israel, Napoleon’s wars were raging. Napoleon would have wanted to kill all of the Jews, but our holy rabbi said some things to him, to Napoleon…”[6] 

It must be remembered though, that this same R. Yisrael Ber Odesser also claimed he had received a Letter From Heaven sent directly to him by R. Nachman who had died 112 years earlier instructing him on how to relieve the world from all suffering and illness. The remedy is the well-known phrase Na Nach Nachma Nachman meUman

Yochanan Twersky 1955

But there is another source outside of the Breslov tradition for R. Nachman and Napoleon meeting in the same room. This source is the writer Yochanan Twersky (1900-1967) who had broken away from his lineage of Chernobler Chassidim.[7] He wrote historical fiction and also about the Chassidic way of life. In his haLev vehaCherev (The Heart and the Sword) published in 1955 which won him the prestigious Brenner Prize, Yochanan Twersky wrote: 

”The confrontation between Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, one of the fathers of our modern [Jewish religious][8] literature from whose fount many have drank, and Napoleon Bonaparte, a role model for both major and minor dictators who followed, perhaps could not be of greater relevance to our generation, which has witnessed the spirit cut down and power and tyranny venerated.”[9] 

Assaf is emphatic that Yochanan Twersky invented this ‘meeting’ between R. Nachman and Napoleon. It seems to me that Yochanan Twersky was using a literary technique or plot structure by highlighting the cosmic struggle between ‘tyranny’ and ‘freedom of the spirit’ being dramatically contrasted by this description of a confrontation and meeting between two symbolically opposing figures. Yochanan Twersky was obviously very much against dictators and tyrants, and he expressed his fear that the Jewish people could also produce such dictators: 

“Our era is one of emotions. An era of blind faith. We have no shortage of false messiahs: Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Perón, Franco. Who knows, maybe one of these days some demagogue will rise up and seize the reins of power in Israel—it can happen here too…” (Michael Ohad, ‘Ani Kotev – Siman sheAni Chai’, Davar: HaShavua (July 18, 1958), 14–15). 

This shows that ‘tyranny’ threatening to overpower the ‘freedom of the spirit’ was a major concern for Yochanan Twersky. He had also mentioned that writers sometimes have to invent ideas and imagery in order to make their points more effective. Thus he may have invented this ‘meeting’ between R. Nachman and Napoleon. Either way, Yochanan Twersky goes on to frame the alleged meeting within rich ‘historical,’ emotional and political detail: 

“[Twersky] put Napoleon’s encampment around Ramle and told of a convoy taken captive on the road from Acre to Jaffa which included ‘a great Jewish rabbi.’ Napoleon demanded that the young rabbi be brought to him. They carried on a conversation, during which Napoleon offered to appoint R. Nachman ‘chief rabbi of this land,’ an offer he politely declined. Napoleon promised him that soon he would do something great for the Jews, ‘the rightful heirs of Palestine. The end to two millennia of disgrace is nigh.’”[10] 

Chabad 1970

The next stage in the development, evolution and expansion of the story about the meeting between R. Nachman and Napoleon occurred ironically, also outside of the Breslover tradition in the 1970 Chabad publication Sichot laNoar (Discourses for Youth). This story it printed has subsequently been translated into many languages and appears on numerous Chabad websites. The name of the author, however, is not given. A summary with quoted excerpts follows: 

“Napoleon set up command on the shores of the Kinneret, ‘precisely opposite the place where Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav was residing and learning Torah day and night.’ It goes on to tell how R. Nahman, with powers of hypnosis and great courage, defended an old Jewish fisherman from the abuse of French soldiers and succeeded in banishing them from his house. 

‘Since that incident, the French soldiers did not dare approach Jewish residences in Tiberias.’ When Napoleon got wind of this, he sent an officer to size up the young rabbi. In conversation with him, the officer was astounded to discover ‘Rabbi Nahman’s deep grasp of the problems that troubled Napoleon and his command staff. His wide knowledge of global politics and strategy astounded the officer, who could not help but become an enthusiastic admirer of the young rebbe.’ 

One night, as R. Nahman sat on the shore of the Kinneret, a skiff suddenly approached, from which Napoleon emerged. During their tête-à-tête, ‘once he was convinced that Rabbi Nahman had a deep understanding and sound judgment of world affairs, he asked his advice whether to continue his campaign to Asia in an attempt to conquer the world, or to return to France and try to solve its internal problems.’ R. Nahman advised him to go home, but Napoleon didn’t listen. Before parting, Napoleon requested [that][11] R. Nahman ‘agree to be one of his advisors,’ but he refused, saying, ‘I seek neither glory nor honor for myself, but only to serve the Lord with all my heart and with all my soul.’ 

‘So the two men went their own ways,’ the [anonymous][12] author concludes his tale. Napoleon died alone in exile, and R. Nahman reached the pinnacle of faith, his grave becoming a magnetic pilgrimage site for Jews around the world” (Assaf 2022:58). 


As it happens, I recall standing up in front of a congregation, some years ago, and authoritatively transmitting this exact story in all its details. In fact, until I found this recent research by Professor Assaf, I continued to believe that this story was entirely accurate. 

This is the difference between hagiography (praise literature) and history, and a distinction must be made between the two. Some have perfected the art of the former so well that Ada Rapoport-Albert has referred to it as “Hagiography with Footnotes.”[13] 

Importantly, I think credit must be given to a source in a more recent Breslov publication entitled Siach Sarfei Kodesh that negates the notion of R. Nachman and Napoleon ever meeting. Siach Sarfei Kodesh selected facts, truth and history over praise literature, myth and hagiography, and boldly chose to write: 

“Some say our rabbi met Napoleon while he was in Tiberias but it is incorrect.”[14]


[1] Assaf, D., 2022, ‘When the Rabbis “Met” Napoleon’, Tradition, 54:2, 55-63.

[2] This correspondence between Greece and Russia through Yavan (Hebrew for Greece) being equated to Ivan (a common Russian name) is known as a Synecdoche which is defined as a literary device in which a part of something is substituted for the whole.

[3] The term “minister” here might refer to the heavenly angel believed to be in charge of each nation.

[4] Chayei Moharan, vol. 2, 17b (Lemberg, 1874).

[5] Chayei Moharan, vol. 1, 10a-b (Lemberg, 1874).

[6] Sefer Yisra’el Sabba, 286 (Odesser Foundation Press, 2003).

[8] Parenthesis is mine.

[9] Yohanan Twersky, haLev vehaCherev: Roman, bo Meto’eret Aliyyato shel haMeshorer R. Nachman uFelishato shel Napole’on leEretz Yisrael (Masada, 1955), 3. 

[10] haLev vehaCherev, 210–212.

[11] Parenthesis is mine.

[12] Parenthesis is mine.

[13] Rapoport-Albert, A., 2018, ‘Hagiography with Footnotes: Edifying Tales and the Writing of History in Hasidism: Fashioning the Past’, in Hasidic Studies: Essays in History and Gender, Liverpool University Press, 199–266.

[14] Avraham Weitzhandler, Siach Sarfei Kodesh, 1:339, §308 (new edition: Meshech haNachal, 2020).

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