Sunday 3 March 2024

463) The discovery of R. Nachman’s Secret Scroll

Megilat Setarim - The Secret Scroll of R. Nachman of Breslov


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Zvi Mark[1] − examines the relatively recent emergence of a work by R. Nachman of Breslov, Megilat Setarim, that was thought to have either been lost or hidden away. 

A cloud of secrecy has always hung over this enigmatic work, particularly concerning the reasons for it to have remained a secret document, but as we shall see, many elements of secrecy surrounded the personality of R. Nachman of Breslov in general. For some reason, secrecy seemed to often go hand in hand with R. Nachman and his teachings:

“We know of one book which R. Nachman hid away, another which he burnt, as well as tales he forbade to reveal to outsiders. So it was that Breslav Chasidim, as a group, enshrouded themselves within a certain air of mystery and kept up a continual discourse concerning hidden works and hidden meanings in their Rebbe’s teaching” (Mark 2010:23). 


Like all Chassidic Rebbes, a large body of hagiography has risen around his personality, and R. Nachman himself was not averse to self-praise (or, as his followers would interpret it, speaking the truth about himself). On many occasions, he called himself the greatest Tzadik of the generation (and even previous generations). He claimed to be greater than his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, and this was why his uncle R. Baruch of Medzebuzh became estranged from him. R. Nachman said that at the age of thirteen, he had already surpassed the greatness of the Baal Shem Tov (Hazan 1961:17). Shaul Magid succinctly describes R. Nachman as follows:

“More than any other Chasidic master before or after, Nachman’s teachings are largely about him” (Magid in Mark 2010:7).

R. Nachman saw himself as a combination of both Mashiach ben David and (particularly) Mashiach ben Yosef. In a text that has been severely censored  probably under R. Nachman’s orders as it was published during his lifetime it is recorded that he said:

וְיֵשׁ צַדִּיק אֶחָד שֶׁהוּא כָּלוּל מִתְּרֵין מְשִׁיחִין יַחְדָּיו. עוֹד אָמַר אָז כַּמָּה דְּבָרִים יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁנִּדְפְּסוּ, וְאָז נִשְׁבַּר הַשֻּׁלְחָן מֵרֹב הָעוֹלָם שֶׁדָּחֲקוּ עַצְמָן עָלָיו

“‘There is a certain Tzadik [righteous man] who incorporates both messiahs together.’ [R. Nachman] further said many more things that cannot be printed. Then the table broke because everyone crowded around him” (Sternharz, Chayei Moharan, Lesson 1.6.)[2]

Arthur Green points out that taken in context:

“[w]henever Nahman used a phrase like ‘there is one zaddiq,’ his disciples knew well that the reference was to none other than himself” (Green 1992;190).

Around 1805 which was 5566 in the Hebrew calendar (566 has the numerical value of Mashiach ben Yosef) R. Nachman began assigning penitential practices and fasts to his immediate followers in preparation for the messianic event. In that same auspicious year, R. Nachman instituted the midnight petition known as Tikun Chatzot, as well as his Tikun haKelali. Gershom Scholem (1971c:99) points out that an increase in penitential prayers and practices always indicates the belief that messianic redemption was imminent. Even the Shpole Zeida and R. Baruch of Medzebuzh (R. Nachman’s uncle) became suspicious of R. Nachman. This may have particularly been as a result of the suspicious and frenzied messianic activity of that year because the:

“awareness on the part of outsiders…[of] the excitement brewing in Bratslav[3] had a familiarly dangerous edge to it” (Green 1992:208).[4]

That was because it was so soon after the escapades of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi. During that same year, there was also an urgency to collect, edit and disseminate R. Nachman’s teachings, which had been largely kept secret up to that point. Green points to this secrecy of R. Nachmans’ writings by recording an oral testimony he heard from:

“a Bratslav hasid in about 1970 [who told him] that the community is still in possession of an uncensored version of Hayey MoHaRan” (Green 1992:20, note 5).[5]

One wonders why it would be necessary to keep a biography of  R. Nachman whose followers cannot get enough of his teachings and yearn for every detail of his life story secret. Why would it be necessary to have two versions of R. Nachman’s biography, an uncensored version and a published censored version? Green continues with the observation that it was not just Chayei Moharan, but there were other works as well that were regarded as secret:

“A most important work of Nahman, Megillat Setarim, which was long thought to have been destroyed, is quoted by N.Z. Koenig, Neweh Zaddikim, pp 87ff., and apparently still exists” (Green 1992:20, note 5).

In the writings of Josef Weiss, published a year earlier in 1969, he asks:

“Does this text actually no longer exist in manuscript among the Breslav Chasidim?” (Weiss, 1969:214).[6]

Even in official Breslover writings, such as Yemei Moharnat, the ‘loss’[7] of the scroll is lamented:

“After the untimely passing of R. Natan, the writings of the Scroll mentioned above were stolen and lost. To this day, no one knows of their whereabouts – Oh, how great the loss, etc” (Yemei Moharnat, 1:i1).

It turns out that Green was correct because a few years later, some followers within the Breslov community approached Zvi Mark and informed him that Megilat Setarim did indeed still exist.  These individuals were fervently convinced that:

“bringing the scroll to light contributed to their belief that Nachman’s teachings, even those hidden away, would procure the conditions for redemption” (Magid in Mark 2010:10).

It also seems that there may have been some inter-communal politics playing out between the “competing Breslav courts” (Mark 2010:17). The scrolls do confirm the fact that, and highlight the extent to which, R. Nachman believed he was the Messiah. The scrolls also reveal the surprising universalistic approach R. Nachman adopted regarding non-Jews. R. Nachman believed his main role, as the Messiah, was to spend most of his time conversing with non-Jews to prepare them for the messianic event.

The story behind the emergence of Megilat Setarim

Mark describes Megilat Setarim as “the innermost secret of Breslav” (Mark 2010:15) because it deals with the coming of the Messiah. He found out about the existence of the work quite by accident. Someone selling R. Nachman’s books once happened to visit him and, in passing, mentioned that the secret scroll still existed and that he had seen it. 

The gravitas of such an incidental discovery of an important and presumed lost Chassidic work just falling into one’s hands without even looking for it is a moment researchers can only dream of. 

Mark pressed the bookseller to allow him to see it but didn’t initially get very far with his request. Eventually, the bookseller agreed that not only could Mark see the manuscripts, but that he would bring the priceless writings to his home!

“I excitedly prepared myself for his expected return and began to search through all mentions of the Scroll in the Breslav oeuvre and academic texts. The more I read, the more excited I became. Unfortunately, my Breslav friend kept putting off our meeting” (Mark 2010:15).

Some time passed but nothing came of the promise to see the work. Then, during another meeting with his friend, the bookseller mentioned that his son had the coveted texts in his possession. He described his son as Breslover “zealot,” who would not allow the document to be viewed. Mark then waited a number of years hoping for a change in the status quo, but at least he knew that the Scroll existed. 

In the meantime, Mark had published his book entitled 'Mysticism and Madness: The Religious Thought of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav,' and it attracted the attention of other Breslover Chassidim. Some fascinating discussions between him and some Breslover Chassidim then began to take place: 

“These meetings continued, often focusing on manuscripts and their authenticity, the characteristics of the Breslav esoterica and the reasons behind their censorship”

Around 2005, after returning from a trip to Uman in Ukraine, Mark was finally considered trustworthy enough to view the coveted Scroll:

“I received the manuscripts of the Scroll from Breslav Chasidim. They came to me piecemeal and not all from the same individual. I am grateful to them all” (Mark 2010:16).

Mark noticed that some sections seemed to be missing. He was correct, they were missing, because various Chassidim owned different sections and copies of the Scroll. Soon those other Chassidim also came forward and presented him with a fuller text:

“I was also able to read another late (and rather poor quality) manuscript, but I was not allowed to copy it myself. Thus it was of little help” (Mark 2010:16).

One of the Breslover rabbis with whom Mark consulted mentioned that indeed, R. Nachman forbade the publishing of this text, but upon reflection, the rabbi ruled that the time was now right to reveal these teachings. Mark then went ahead and worked on the text, thus making it available to the wider world:

“I also want to thank the many Chasidim who upon hearing that the Scroll was in my possession offered their time, expertise and energy to help me decipher and interpret it. They, for reasons of their own, have requested to remain anonymous” (Mark 2010:17).

It was, however, only after the Hebrew version of Mark’s book (based on a photocopy of R. Alter of Teplik’s manuscript) was published, that he managed to finally locate an original, authentic manuscript of the Scroll, which was found in the private collection of R. Leibel Berger. 

The Scroll is not easy to read or understand. It is written in a “sort of code, as a random collection of letters, acronyms, and abbreviations” but it contains a “breathtaking and awesome messianic vision composed of poetry and prayer, desires and longings (Mark 2010:18). 

The messianic content of Megilat Setarim

Shaul Magid describes the essence of Mark’s discovery as follows:

“Mark was able to decipher most of the scroll. What he discovered was something not unexpected but remarkable nonetheless. In these writings, likely never meant to be read by those outside his small circle of followers (unlike many early masters, and despite his messianic inclinations, Nachman only attracted a very small circle of followers during his short life), we can see the extent to which Nachman did for a time view himself as the Messiah and believed he would usher in redemption. More striking, however, as Mark meticulously shows, are the unexpected dimensions of that messianic vocation. For example, the scrolls show that despite the insular nature of Chasidic pietism, Nachman viewed the role of the messiah (his role) as one who spent much of his time, perhaps most of his time, reaching out to non-Jews, in conversation and through teaching, in order to adequately prepare them for the messianic unfolding” (Magid in Mark 2010:10).

We already know from the general published literature that R. Nachman first considered himself to be the Messiah, then he projected that role onto one of his daughters’ sons to be the redeemer:

“In the year 1803, he [R. Nachman] married off his daughter Sarah…After the ceremony, which took place in the evening, they spoke of messiah, etc. (and our master hinted that it would be fitting that it came from this union, etc.)” (Sternharz, Chayei Moharan, Lesson 4:3).

Later, when R. Nachman was thirty-three years old, his son was born, and the messianic focus shifted to his own son Shlomo Efrayim, who was supposed to manifest as the Messiah in 1806. Instead, the child sadly passed away. Significantly, Megilat Setarim was first revealed in Av of 1806, just two months after his child’s death (Mark 2010:149). It seems that eventually, all R. Nachman’s messianic expectations began to wane:

“Struggling to make sense of the tragic death of his infant son, Shlomo Efrayim…Nachman abandoned much of his messianic rhetoric. Soon after this tragic event he turned to storytelling” (Magid in Mark 2010:8).

Megilat Setarim, however, shows the extent of R. Nachman’s initial belief that he was to be the Messiah. Perhaps this was one of the main reasons why it was felt necessary to keep this hidden from outsiders. It was a difficult time to promote an individual as the Messiah so soon after the debacle of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi whose messianic movement, known as Sabbatianism, was still a powerful force during R. Nachman’s lifetime. Even R. Nachman’s closest disciple, R. Natan Sterhartz, was accused of being related to another Sabbatian false messiah R. Yehuda Leib Prossnitz (see Kotzk Blog: 131) R. YEHUDAH LEIB PROSSNITZ - ANOTHER FALSE MESSIAH:)[8]. For these reasons, it may have been considered prudent to hide the overtly messianic projections of R. Nachman.

But besides historical concerns of association with Sabbatianism, the Breslovers would emphasise another reason to keep the Scroll secret. The time and the individual nature of the Messiah is, according to Breslover tradition, only to be known by one individual.[9] 

R. Nachman’s ‘rationalist’ vision of the Messianic era

One may have imagined R. Nachman to have presented a rather fanciful messianic vision but his teaching was surprisingly pragmatic (almost Maimonidean although, ironically, he forbade the study of Maimonidean philosophy):

“The attitude evinced in the Scroll leans towards continued stability and not radical difference. Both physical and human nature are depicted as essentially unchanged in the days of the messiah (Mark 2010:159).

It is possible that this prosaic messianic worldview of R. Nachman, was another reason to keep the Scroll secret. Jews had always had tremendous expectations of the Messiah and the messianic era. The Breslov leadership may not have wanted to dash those hopes:

“Might R. Natan have felt that this view would somehow tarnish the expectations that the multitudes held for the messiah and his kingdom – despite the fact that this was the opinion of Maimonides himself? The reasons that R. Natan had for keeping the Scroll secret may have included not only a desire to keep the identity of the messiah (suspiciously close to R. Nachman and Shlomo Efraim) hidden from the masses, but also respect for the difference regarding their supernatural expectations of the messianic age and its depiction in the Scroll” (Mark 2010:161). 

Societal differences will remain in the messianic era

Another ‘disappointment’ contained in the Scroll is the notion that in R. Nachman’s vision of messianic times, the stark differences between people and peoples may still prevail. Everyone will remain within the same social and intellectual strata or hierarchy as they did before. Each person will remain “according to his station”:

“The societal evolution of the messianic era will not lead to the complete breakdown of intellectual differences between people… The future still finds differences between Jew and gentile, as well as between the righteous and wicked who naturally do not inhabit the same spiritual plane. Some will expend a great deal of energy in their theological search, others little. Human nature and society…stays the same” (Mark 2010:162-3).

Illness will remain in the messianic era

Fascinatingly R. Nachman also describes the role of the Messiah to primarily include healing, because “even then there will be illness:”

“Medical cures will not rest on the supernatural – on mystical amulets and the like – rather the messiah’s new medicinal ‘compounds’, the product of his own agricultural ingenuity, will offer the key to health. The efficacy of messianic medicine, however, does depend upon the messiah’s special spiritual knowledge – he knows the divine source of each and every herb – but their actual function is quite natural. It seems, then, that the physical world is not subject to change in the messianic age. The regularities of nature, as well as their disturbances (such as sickness), will be constants. However, new drugs will be available to fight them (Mark 2010:160). 

There will be no apocalyptic event

Along these surprising non-supernaturalistic lines especially for a mystic[10] R. Nachman sets out his vision of messianic times which, in keeping with his approach, also contains no reference to an apocalypse or apocalyptic event:

“The political leadership that the messiah displays in bringing the people of Israel back to its land reveals…the lack of any apocalyptic struggle in the end of days. No wars, acts of violence or natural disasters are needed to change the face of humanity… no mention of even a spiritual war can be found in the Scroll (Mark 2010:167).

R. Nachman’s vision of a future political Zionism

Even more fascinating is R. Nachman’s vision of a future messianic Zionism (or what Mark calls “political Zionism”). This is such a unique perspective that Mark adds:

“To the best of my knowledge, no similar depiction can be found in the entirety of Jewish literature before R. Nachman” (Mark 2010:165).

R. Nachman writes in his Megilat Setarim with an almost uncanny futuristic idealism about a kind of bartering and negotiation by the Messiah for the Holy Land:

“Each of the kings will give him a present – or a country or a people And some will give him a stipend and he will exchange with each of them until he receives through barter the Land of Israel. That is, he will give to each the country near his border and receive for this a country closer to the Land of Israel until he receives through barter the Land of Israel…and the Land of Israel will have room for all. Afterwards the Land of Israel will expand” (R. Nachman, Megilat Setarim, Section II, line 25).

On the notion of the expansion of the land, the Scroll differs from the Midrashic interpretation of the Biblical promise ‘every place upon which you step, I will give to you’ (Joshua 1:3). 

“According to the Sages, this means that Jewish settlement in surrounding lands lends them the same holy status enjoyed by Israel itself. Understanding the expansion of the Land in this way limits it to those places where there will be actual settlement. It does not seem to correspond to the depiction of the messiah’s activities in the Scroll which do not include any military conquests, however” (Mark 2010:178). 

Mark writing in 2011 explains R. Nachman’s vision as follows:

“Neither through might nor war will the messiah return the land to its people, but rather through what would one day be called ‘political Zionism.’ By way of a chain of agreements for territorial transfers based on economic-political considerations, the messiah is able to establish his kingdom in Israel legally in accord with the nations. Only then does the ingathering of the exiles begin as the Jewish nation streams to the Holy Land to become part of his kingdom” (Mark 2010:166).

In R. Nachman’s unusual two-century-old vision of the messianic age, physical power plays no role and much attention is given instead to negotiating with the recognised leadership. This idea percolated to another Breslov teaching that:

“The messiah will take the world with nary a shot fired” (Siach Sarfei Kodesh, vol. 2, 17). 

The ‘resurrection’ of R. Nachman

Going back to R. Nachman’s unusual preoccupation with referencing himself, the question arises as to whether R. Nachman saw himself returning from the dead, just before the messianic era. An enigmatic phrase in Megilat Setarim is the apparent abbreviation “nech’ haBesht,” who are/is destined to return in the future. Now this phrase may well stand for “nechdei haBesht” (grandchildren of the Baal Shem Tov) or it may refer to, neched, in the singular, meaning grandchild (R. Nachman was the great-grandchild of the Baal Shem Tov) and therefore to R. Nachman himself who is to ‘return.’

“Some of the scholarly research, though, has claimed that there remains a secret belief that the Rebbe [R. Nachman] never really died, or alternatively, will come back to life and play a major role in the coming of the messiah among Breslav Chasidim” (Mark 2010:188-9).[11]

Although Mark does not subscribe to this view, Mendel Piekarz connects this interpretation to the belief of some Breslovers that R. Nachman is the Messiah and as such is destined to return and redeem us.[12] Piekarz also speaks of an idea with a familiar ring to it of “the hidden Breslav belief, that the death of R. Nachman was but his hiding and disappearance, and in the future he will return once again to enact the final redemption.”[13] This may be another reason for the Scroll to have been hidden away. 


Sociologically, secrecy has always played an important role among Breslover Chassidim who never appointed a dynasty of Rebbes after R. Nachman had passed away:

“Alongside of the normal social and religious institutions, the system of secrets and secrecy which was part of the Breslav ethos created another way of shaping the court and community. The question whether an individual was worthy of knowing the secrets which properly belonged only to the inner circle or whether he was still a ‘stranger’ was one of the fundamental ways in which the community assembled itself. Which secrets could be revealed to whom? The answer to this question determined the hierarchy within the seemingly leaderless Breslav court” (Mark 2010:245).

The Breslover community succeeded in keeping Megilat Setarim a closely guarded secret for generations, until now.

“The Scroll is perhaps one of the last secrets in the world of Jewish mysticism… We live in a time when once carefully guarded esoteric mystic works are now published together with translations for any and all to peruse and purchase” (Mark 2010:219).

However, the story of Megilat Setarim may not yet be entirely over, because Mark writes:

“I hope that with its publication, other unknown copies of the Scroll may come to light and through comparisons, the rest of this manuscript can be deciphered” (Mark 2010:24).


Litinsky, M.N., 1895, Korot Podolia veKadmoniyot haYehudim Sham [History of Podolia and the History of the Jews there] (Hebrew), Odesa. 

Mark, Z., 2010, The Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Breslav, Translated by Naftali Moses, Academic Studies Press, Brighton, MA.

Weiss, J., 1969, ‘R. Nachman of Breslav’s Hidden Book of the Advent of the Messiah’, Kiryat Sefer 44.

[1] Mark, Z., 2010, The Scroll of Secrets: The Hidden Messianic Vision of R. Nachman of Breslav, Translated by Naftali Moses, Academic Studies Press, Brighton, MA. 

[2] Translation and square brackets are mine.

[3] The Podolian town was called ‘Bratzlav’ but the Chassidim from there romanticised it to ‘Breslov’ as the latter resembles the Hebrew phrase lev basar (a heart of flesh). The two names are often used interchangeably.

[4] Square brackets are mine.

[5] Square brackets are mine.

[6] Weiss, J., 1969, ‘R. Nachman of Breslav’s Hidden Book of the Advent of the Messiah’, Kiryat Sefer 44.

[7] Joseph Weiss questions whether this ‘loss’ of the manuscript might not have been “yet another example of Breslav trickery – denying the existence of texts which were in fact well guarded by them? (Weiss 1969:203).

[8] R. Natan Sternharz denies these charges on a document, allegedly written in his own hand:

“When the path of my teacher and master [R. Nachman] spread forth…other Chassidim, led by the old one [the Shpole Zeida] accused him of being a follower of that sect and a Sabbatian, though our master was innocent of that sin of which they accused him, as am I, his disciple” (Sternharz in Litinsky, Megilat Chassidei Bratslav, 1895:62f).

This document, published by Menachem Nachum Litinsky in 1995, has been discredited by Green (1992:127, note 26) for a number of reasons: the writing style is not the style of R. Natan Sternharz that we are familiar with; there is no typical malediction (like ‘cursed be his name’) after referring to Shabbatai Tzvi; and ‘Bratzlav’ is referenced instead of the more common ‘Breslov’ which would most likely have been used by R. Natan Sternharz. Notwithstanding the questionable authenticity of the Litinsky publication, those were still difficult times for too much emphasis to be placed on new messianism hence, the need to obscure overtly messianic writings like Megilat Setarim.

[9] See Siach Sarfei Kodesh, vols. 1-5 (Jerusalem: 1994), volume 2, 82-83.

[10] In the interests of accuracy, it must be noted that in other places, R. Nachman did speak about a ‘second messianic phase’ where everything functions according to Providence and the supernatural. But still, in R. Nachman’s conceptualsation as presented in the Scroll, the messianic phase follows the natural laws of nature and not supernaturalism.

[11] Square brackets are mine.

[12] Piekarz, Studies in Bratslav Hasidism, 144.

[13] Piekarz, Studies in Bratslav Hasidism, 139.


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