Tsfat is one of the four holy cities of Israel. It is the old city of the mystics and the new city of Bar Ilan University Medical School. Spelled Zefad by Google maps and Safed in history books, it is built on the steep hills in the heart of the mountains of the Galil. Stairways are everywhere.
What struck me as my friend Miri guided me through the Breslov community last Spring was the number of stairs we had to go down from the main area of the town. The Breslovers, like most Hassidic sects, have large families with many children. How do they, I wondered, manage the stairways with baby buggies? Miri agreed the stairs are a problem. She then added, “You saw the supermarket up on Jerusalem street?”
I nodded, remembering the market over a hundred steps above us on the main street that Allen and I had walked past the previous day,
“That’s the nearest place to buy food,” she said.”There are no makollets in the Breslov area.”I grimaced at the idea of pushing, dragging, lifting, all my groceries along with a baby and toddler in tow, up and down all those stairs. The stairs were the standard limestone stairs you see all over Jerusalem , the kind that get very slippery when they are wet. “What about winter?” I asked.
“That’s a problem. When they get snow or ice on them, they’re very bad. And these railings,” she gestured to the iron rail I was holding, “They’re relatively new.”
That day Miri and I walked the perimeter of the Breslov enclave–down the steps and along a flat street that gave magnificent views of the forested slopes of the Galilee Mountains to Mount Meron on the other side of the valley. At the far end of the Breslov enclave, we climbed back up to the main area of the city.
Last week, however, I got to enter the Breslov area. On a trip to Tsfat with my class on prayer, we met with Rabbi Simcha Mirvis. Rabbi Mirvis, who originally hails from Nashville, TN, welcomed forty of us into his home. When he realized how large our group was, he sent to neighbors for more chairs, apologizing for his wife’s absence. They had just welcomed a new baby and she was spending time at a special rest home for new mothers.
The Breslov sect, followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), are known for several things: their joy and their practice of hitbod’didut (seclusion). Their joy is expressed by wild, psychedelic painting on the trucks that show up at celebrations playing loud music for everyone to dance to. The young men race into crowds of onlookers or soldiers, grabbing hands to pull men into their circles. One subgroup of the Breslov Hasidim is known as “Na Nachs,” because of the slogan they paint on any, and all, available walls, and rocks, as well as their sound trucks. All over the country you see the phrase in Hebrew “Na Nach Nachma Nachman m’Uman.” This slogan, which is simply Rav Nachman’s name spelled out one syllable at a time, was revealed by the Rabbi 112 years after his death in a note to one of his followers. The Na Nachs believe these words form the ninth of the Ten Songs of Redemption.
I’ve seen “Na Nach Nachma Nachman m’Uman” on stickers plastered to cars and apartment doors, and painted on abandoned buildings, fences around construction sites, and large rocks in national parks. The retaining wall of Har Menuchot, one of the largest cemeteries in Jerusalem, is clearly visible from Road 1. Riding on a bus one day, I looked up and saw “Na Nach N” in bright red and purple letters on that wall. How horrible, to see that outside the resting place of your loved ones! A few days later, the letters had been covered with paint that almost matched the color of the stones. Since then, no one else has deface the cemetery wall. However, you can still see the whiteness of the covering paint, however.
My class on prayer was not in the Tsfat Breslov enclave to discuss red and purple paint, but to learn more about hitbod’didut, the distinctive spiritual practice of Breslovers. Hitbod’didut, which means seclusion, is freestyle personal prayer. The Breslov Hassidim go to quiet, secluded places, preferably a field or forest, and talk privately to G-d. Unlike meditation, it is performed aloud. Ideally, according to Rav Nachman’s formulation, it should be done for at least an hour a day, in the middle of the night or early morning when all is quiet and there are no distractions. Rabbi Mirvis said that sometimes, like this week, he can’t get away from the house, so he sits in the corner of his living room and does his hitbod’didut there.
In Tsfat, many of the Breslov men go out in the middle of the night in small groups of three or four. They drive a few minutes out of town into the mountains. Each man goes his own way to find a suitable place to talk to G-d, arranging a time to meet back at the car. If someone does not show up, the others know to go look for him. Rabbi Mirvis says you can tell a Breslover by his shoes. Most Hassidim wear wing-tip shoes, or perhaps Yeshiva-style loafers. But Breslovers wear boots, so they can hike through the mountains or trek through fields. The ideal is to show up for morning prayers at 6 AM with fresh mud on your boots. The others will look at you and think, with admiration, “he’s been doing his hitbod’didut.” I was amused to hear that these Hassidim, who dress modestly to avoid attracting undue attention to the externals, might check each other out that way.
When he finished his explanation, he asked if there were any questions. Someone else asked the question I wanted to—what do you talk about in hitbod’didut?
“You talk about what is on your mind’’ replied the Rabbi. There is no set format. As Rambam said in his ”Laws of Prayer” you say what you need to say, thank G-d for something, ask for help. It’s your time—you say what you want. If you are working on a middah, a spiritual characteristic such as holding back anger or doing specific acts of loving kindness, tell G-d how you are coming along with that. And if you can’t think of anything to say, start with that. Tell the Holy One, Blessed is He, you can’t think of anything, that your mind is empty right now, that it is hard to know what to say to G-d. You’ll think of more to say as you go on.”
“And if you can’t go out to nature, it’s okay to do it at home?”someone else asked.
“This week, with my wife not here, I can’t go out. But when I sit here, in this corner, I can feel G-d’s presence. And with this view,” he pointed out the large window that had an unobstructed view of the forested valley and mountains leading up to Mount Meron, a few miles away, “why would I want to leave?”
Then he added that women, with more responsibilities in the house, tend to do their talking to G-d at home, in small snatches of time during the day. They should also set aside time, but the small snippets of time are very powerful because the women are constantly in touch with G-d. Hitbod’didut doesn’t have to be about issues of supreme importance, it can be as simple as, “Please don’t let the cake fall in the oven,” or “Help me not to lose my temper with my four year old this morning.” The important thing is that is spontaneous, rooted in the here and now, yet strengthening your own path between you and G-d.
Having grown up in the mainstream of Jewish tradition, in which all prayer is strictly rooted in the words of the siddur, the prayer book, hitbod’didut was a refreshing idea. In a way it validated what I have been doing all my life, talking to G-d several times a day, as the need arises. These little snatches of prayer are in addition to my daily prayers, which I recite at the specified time. Unlike Rav Nachman and the Breslov Hasidim, however, I don’t go out to the fields or forest to do it. Maybe one day I will.