From Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation and commentary, “Rabbi Nachman’s Tales” (Breslov Research Institute), pp. 278-283.
These is just the beginning of Rebbe Nachman’s epic tale, with commentary from Rabbi Kaplan, but it creates a romantic myth of the Chassidic Rebbe, at least according to the Breslov vision, who creates an Eden-like realm for his disciples, far from the vain pursuits of ordinary society. (Note that they lived on fruit, as did Adam and Eve, and were “not at all concerned about clothing.”)
Once there was a Master of Prayer. He was constantly engaged in prayer, and in singing songs and praises to God. He lived away from civilization. However, he would visit inhabited areas on a regular basis. When he came, he would spend time with the people, usually those of low status, such as the poor. He would have heart to heart discussions with them, speaking about the goal. He would explain that the only true goal was to serve God all the days of one's life, spending one's days praying to God and singing His praise.
He would speak to an individual at great length, motivating him, so that his words entered the other's heart, and. the individual would join him. As soon as a person agreed with him, he would take him and bring him to his place away from civilization.
For this purpose, the Master of Prayer had chosen for himself a place far from civilization. There was a river flowing there, as well as fruit trees, whose fruit [he and his followers] would eat. He was not at all concerned about clothing.
It was the custom of [the Master of Prayer] to visit inhabited areas, and spread his ideas, convincing people to emulate him, serving God and constantly praying. Whenever people wanted to join him, he would take them to his place away from civilization, where their only activities would be praying, singing praise to God, confession, fasting, self‑mortification, repentance, and similar occupations. He would give them his books of prayers, songs, praises, and confessions, and they would occupy themselves with them at all times.
Among the people he brought there, he would find individuals who had the ability to lead others to serve God. He would allow such individuals to visit inhabited places, and also bring people to serve God.
In this manner, the Master of Prayer constantly spread his teachings. He would constantly attract people and bring them away from civilization.
Eventually, his teachings began to make an impression, and his activities became well known. People would suddenly vanish without a trace; no one knew where they were. A person might lose a son or a son‑in‑law, and not have any idea of his whereabouts. But finally people began to realize that all this was due to the Master of Prayer, who was attracting people to serve God.
People tried to capture him, but it was impossible to recognize him. The Master of Prayer devised clever plans, and he would constantly disguise himself in different ways. Every time he visited a person, he would be disguised differently. With one person, he would be a pauper; with another a merchant; while with others, he would have different disguises.
On many occasions when he spoke to the people, he saw that he could not make any impression on them, and could not draw them to his goal. He would then engage in subterfuges, so they would not be aware of his intention. It would appear that his intent was not at all to bring people to God; it was totally impossible to recognize that this was his purpose. Although his main intent was only to draw people close to God, and this was his entire motivation, whenever he saw that he was not making any impression, he would use roundabout ways so that the person would not recognize his true intent.
The Master of Prayer kept this up until he began to make a major impression on the world. He also became quite famous. People tried to capture him, but it was not possible.
The Master of Prayer and his men lived far away from civilization. They would spend their time engaged only in prayer, song, praise to God, confession, fasting, self‑mortification and repentance.
The system of the Master of Prayer was to provide each [of his followers] with what he needed. If he realized that one of his followers, according to [that follower's] mentality, needed to wear golden robes in order to serve God, then he would provide them for him. On the other hand, occasionally he would attract a wealthy person and bring him away from civilization. If he understood that he needed to wear torn, humble clothing, he would instruct him to do so.
This was his general custom. He would provide each one with what he understood to be necessary for him. For the people he attracted to God, fasting and self-mortification were better and more precious than all wordly enjoyment. They would have greater pleasure from fasting or self‑mortification than from all worldly pleasures.
(The rest of the story is found in “Rabbi Nachman’s Tales,” Breslov Research Institute.)
Master of Prayer. This story was told on Saturday night, at the end of Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5570 (January 6, 1810) (Chayay Moharan 15c, #59).
Rabbi Yosef, the cantor (baal tefillah) of Breslov, was with Rabbi Nachman, along with his other followers. The cantor had a torn caftan, and Rabbi Nachman said, "You are the cantor, through which everything comes about. Why don't you have a decent caftan?" He then began, "There was once a story about a prayer leader (baal tefillah)..."
He told the entire story that night. At first those present thought that he was relating a true anecdote, and did not realize that he was telling a story. However, as the story unfolded, they realized that he was telling one of his stories from "ancient times" (Chayay Moharan 16a #3; see Tovoth Zikhronoth, p. 25).
During that winter, Rabbi Nathan had been in Berdichev to collect a debt from Rabbi Nachman's brother‑in‑law (Yemey Moharnat 27b). When he returned from Berdichev after Chanukah, Rabbi Nachman said, "I know a story that was told prior to the time of the First Temple, and only the Prophet who told the story and I, know its secret." It was shortly after this that he told "The Master of Prayer." However, he said that this was not the story to which he was referring (Sichoth HaRan 198). During this winter, Rabbi Nachman told three stories: "The Exchanged Children," "The Master of Prayer," and "The Seven Beggars" (Yemey Moharnat 30b).
Rabbi Nachman himself said that this story is related to the 31st chapter in Isaiah (end of story).
There are ten characters in the story, relating to the Ten Sefiroth (end of story), as well as the Ten Commandments (Parpara’oth LeChokhmah on Mekhilta, Yithro). The ten characters are also the ten people of a minyan, who are led by the baal tefillah (Likutey Halakhoth, Tefillah 4:1).
It is also possible that the ten characters in the story parallel the ten men in Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai's circle (Idra). It is also told that the Ari had a similar circle of ten men (Vayakhel Moshe, Introduction). As we shall see, Rabbi Nachman himself also sometimes identified with certain characters in this story.
Master of Prayer. Baal Tefillah – in Hebrew, a word that is usually used to denote a cantor or "prayer leader." Although he had many other good traits, and was a great saint, he is called the Master of Prayer, or the prayer leader (Likutey Etzoth, Tefillah 24). This is because prayer is the main rectification of all the fallen attributes (Likutey Halakhoth, Tefillah 4:12). Through prayer one can achieve the highest levels and accomplish all one's desires (Likutey Moharan Tinyana 111). The Baal Tefillah is thus the first character introduced in the book (end of story), and the leader of the king's group of ten in rectification (Likutey Halakhoth. Tefillah 4:1).
The Baal Tefillah is seen as the paradigm of the tzaddik, the righteous man or saint (Likutey Etzoth, Tokhachah 8). In some ways, he is modeled after the Baal Shem Tov, or Rabbi Nachman himself.
In a deeper sense, all the characters in the story relate to the Sefiroth, which arc aspects through which we can understand God. The Talmud thus teaches that God Himself prays (Berakhoth 7a). Similarly, at the beginning of creation, after the chaos and void, which allude to the breaking of vessels, God said, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3), and this can be considered the first prayer. Hence, God Himself can be seen as a Master of Prayer (Chokhmah U’Tevunah 10).
The Master of Prayer is said to parallel the last of the Ten Commandments, "Do not covet" (Exodus 20:14), which according to the Zohar includes all the other commandments (Zohar Chadash 44c; Parpara’oth LeChokhmah, Mekhilta, Yithro).
Among the Sefiroth, the Master of Prayer most probably relates to Malkhuth. Hence, the Master of Prayer "passes through the places" of all the characters in his descent, while the others do not pass through his place. Malkhuth is usually personified by King David, who was indeed the paradigm of a Master of Prayer.
away from civilization. Before the tikkun, civilized areas are far from the true goal. We thus say in the morning service, "All their deeds are chaos."
The Master of Prayer was also far from civilization conceptually. He did not concern himself with the things that people do. For him, fasting and prayer were the greatest enjoyments, the opposite of ordinary people.
This teaches that if a person truly wishes to serve God on the highest level, he must separate himself from people. If he cannot do so physically he should do so mentally. This is the concept of hithbodeduth – secluded meditation – that Rabbi Nachman taught.
Actually, we see that the great hurricane transformed desert into civilized areas and civilized areas into desert. Therefore, by remaining in the deserts, the Baal Tefillah was in what was a civilized area before the time of confusion (Rimzey Ma’asioth).
This teaches a general lesson that a tzaddik who wants to bring people close to God must keep away from civilization, if not physically, then conceptually (Likutey Etzoth B, Tzaddik 80).
In general, there is a dispute as to whether it is better to reject the world or to try to elevate it. The Baal Tefillah held that the best thing to do at such a time was to reject the world. This same dispute may have been the one that existed between Cain and Abel. After God cursed the earth (Genesis 3:17), Abel disassociated himself from the earth by becoming a shepherd (Genesis 4:2, Rashi, ad loc.). Cain, on the other hand, became a farmer, trying to rectify the curse. In a time of great upheaval, however, Cain's approach may not be successful (Oneg Shabbath, p. 40).
Since, as we shall see later, the world had fallen into errors, and each land was if inhabited by a group with a different error, the Master of Prayer kept away from settled areas. It also seems that the faction that chose prayer as its goal (later in the story) did not settle any place. In the case of all the other factions, the story says that they settled in a land, but not this group. Later in the story we also see that they are traveling, rather than settled.
visit inhabited areas. Although the tzaddik must keep away from the ways of ordinary people, there are times he must behave like an ordinary person in order to bring others close to God. In this respect, he is entering "inhabited areas" (Likutey Etzoth B, Tzaddik 80).
the poor. It is best to bring great, intelligent people close to God, since these people have greater souls. Furthermore, when the great are attracted, others will automatically come. However, the Evil One makes this task very difficult; therefore, the tzaddik must begin working with the humble masses (Likutey Etzoth, Tokhachah 7).
the goal. As we shall see later, various factions in the world had chosen all sorts of false and warped goals for themselves.
would eat. They were thus not very concerned with eating and drinking, and needed no money to buy their necessities (cf. Rimzey Ma’asioth). In a sense, they were like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in a cave, nourished by a stream and a carob tree (Shabbath 33b). Earlier, we noted that the Baal Tefillah is like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai because he was the leader of a group of ten, as well.
clothing. Rabbi Nachman added this remark because the Breslover cantor's robe was torn, and he, the cantor, was not concerned about it (Chayay Moharan 16a #3).
Rabbi Nachman generally taught that the desire for good clothing can lead a person to sin (Sichoth HaRan 100). Furthermore, the lust for wealth, which is the most difficult to rectify (as we see in the story) can be rectified by not being concerned with clothing (Likutey Halakhoth, Geneivah 2:9, Rimzey Ma’asioth).
confession. Confessing their sins to God, the first stage of repentance. fasting, self‑mortification. Also used by the Kabbalists as a means of repentance and self-purification.
books. The Baal Tefillah himself wrote many of these prayer books, as we see later in the story (cf. Likutey Etzoth B, Tefillah 24).
allow such individuals. After the tzaddik's disciples have followed his regime of prayer and other practices, he can let them mingle with people to bring others close to God (Likutey Etzoth B, Tokhachah 7).
away from civilization. This involves hithbodeduth (isolated meditation), which is the only way to the goal (Rimzey Ma’asioth). Therefore, the Master of Prayer insisted that prayer be in isolated places (see Likutey Moharan 52 regarding hithbodeduth away from the city). Furthermore, when they are among other people, they are subject to adverse influences and cannot reach their full potential (Likutey Etzoth B, Tokhachah 7).
to capture him. Because the world is in confusion, people try to take the Baal Tefillah captive. rather than to emulate him. When a person is close to the goal, and tries to bring others to serve God, the forces of evil try to take him prisoner. However, a person must continually strive to bring others close to God, even if it means that others will try to capture him (Rimzey Maasioth).
clever plans. Or more literally, "conducted himself with wisdom." Since evil tries to trap the tzaddik who tries to bring others close to God, he must act with great wisdom (Rimzey Ma’asioth).
disguise himself. The tzaddik who wants to bring others to God must behave intelligently and occasionally use various disguises. If people recognize him, they might not listen to him at all, and they might even try to harm him (Likutey Etzoth B, Tokhachah 8).