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The fairy tale from Rabbi Nachman from Braslav “The Lost Princess” with explanations

In the creative legacy of Rabbi Nachman (1772–1810), the founder of Braslav branch of Chasidism, there is a book “Rabbi Nachman's Stories.” We'll give a few quotations from the preface to this book written by Rabbi Nathan, a student of Rabbi Nachman.

About fairy tale as a form of transmission of secret knowledge: “This was the way things were originally done in Israel, through redemption and interchanging. When people wanted to speak of God's hidden mysteries, they would speak in allegory and parable, hiding in many disguises the concealed secrets of the Torah, the King's hidden treasury... in ancient times when the Initiates discussed Kabbalah, they would speak in this manner. Until the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, they would not openly use explicit Kabbalistic terms.”

About requirements for the reader: “If a person's heart has attained perfection, and he is expert in the sacred works, especially in the books of the Zohar and the writings of the Ari, then if he fully concentrates his mind and heart on these stories, he will be able to understand and know a small portion of the allusions found in them.” And also: “Whoever has eyes will see, and whoever has a heart will understand. ‘It is not an empty thing from you’ (Deuteronomy 32:47). ‘If it is empty, then it is from you’ [that is, it is your own fault]. The words [of these stories] stand in the highest places. We heard [the Rebbe] say explicitly that every word of these holy stories has tremendous meaning, and that anyone who changes even a single word of these stories from the way that they were told is taking very much away from the story. [The Rebbe] also said that these stories are original concepts (chidushim) that are very wondrous and awesome. They contain extraordinary, hidden, deep meanings.”

About the correction of folk tales: “Before [the Rebbe] began telling the first story in this book, he declared, ’Many hidden meanings and lofty concepts are contained in the stories that the world tells. These stories, however, are deficient; they contain many omissions. They are also confused, and people do not tell them in the correct order. What begins the story may be told at the end, and the like. Nevertheless, the folk tales that the world tells contain many lofty hidden mysteries.” In a fairy story “The Lost Princess” Rabbi Nahman has corrected the Russian folk tale “Enchanted king's daughter” (“Заколдованная королевна,” see the collection “Russian folk tales” by Afanasyev). By comparing these texts, the reader himself can see and appreciate the work performed by Rabbi Nachman.

About the purpose of making up fairy tales: “There are some stories that are ‘of the modern era.‘ However, there are other stories from ancient times... If you study the entire lesson well, you will have some awareness and understanding as to the lofty implications of these stories as well as [the Rebbe's] holy intent [in telling them].”

Below we are giving the first (of the book, and perhaps in terms of importance) from the stories of Rabbi Nachman.

The Lost Princess

[The Rebbe] said: Along the way, I told a story, that everyone who heard had thoughts of repentance. And it is as follows:

There once was a king, who had six sons and one daughter. This daughter was very precious in his eyes. He loved her exceptionally, and took great delight in her. One time, he spoke with her and lost his temper, and the words “May the no good one take you!” flew from his mouth. In the evening she went to her room, and in the morning, no one knew where she was. And her father was very distraught, and he went everywhere looking for her.

The second to the king stood up, for he saw that the king was very troubled, and asked that he provide him with a servant, a horse, and money for the journey, in order to search for her. He searched for a very long time, until he found her. (And following is the account of his search, until he found her.) He went from place to place, for a very long time, in deserts, fields and forests. And he searched for her a very long time.

As he was crossing a desert, he saw a path to the side, and thought to himself: ”Seeing that I've been going such a long time in the desert and I cannot find her, I'll try this path — maybe I'll come to a settled area.” And he went a very long time on that path.

Afterward, he saw a castle, with several soldiers standing guard around it. The castle was very attractive and well-built, and the soldiers were impressively aligned around it. He worried that the soldiers would not allow him to enter. But he said to himself, “I will go and try.” So he left the horse behind, and approached the castle. And the soldiers did not hinder him. He went from room to room without disturbance, and came to one reception hall, in which the king sat, wearing his crown. And there were a number of guards, and musicians with their instruments standing before him. It was all very pleasant and beautiful, and neither the king nor any of the others inquired about him at all.

And he saw there delicacies and fine foods, and he approached and ate and went to lie down in a corner, to see what would transpire there. He saw that the king ordered for the queen to be brought. They went to bring her, and there ensued a great commotion and joy. The musicians played and sang a great deal, being that they were bringing the queen. They placed a chair for her and sat her next to the king. And she was the above-mentioned princess, and he (the second to the king), saw and recognized her.

After that, the queen gazed about and saw a man lying in a corner, and recognized him. She stood from her chair and went over to him, nudging him, and asked him, “Do you recognize me?” He answered, “Yes, I do. You're the princess who was lost.” And he asked her, “How did you come to be here?” She answered, “Because my father blurted out the words ‘The no good one should take you’, and here, this place, is no good.”

So he told her that her father was very saddened, and that he had been searching for several years. And he asked, “How can I get you out of here?” She answered, “The only possible way to take me out is if you choose a place, and dwell there a full year. And the whole year, you must long to take me out. Any time that you have free, you should only long and request and hope to free me. And do fasts, and on the last day of the year, you should fast and not sleep the entire day.” So he went to do this.

On the last day of the year, he fasted, and did not sleep, and rose and began the journey back. And on the way he saw a tree, and on it were growing very attractive apples. And they were tantalizing to his eyes, and he approached and ate from them. Immediately after having eaten, he dropped and fell asleep, and he slept a very long time. His servant would try to wake him, but to no avail. Afterwards, he awoke from his sleep, and asked the servant, “Where am I in the world?” And the servant told him the story: “You were sleeping a very long time, several years. And I survived on the fruit.” And he was very pained upon hearing this.

So he returned there and found her. And she revealed her great distress to him. “If you had only come on that day, you would have removed me from here, and because of one day, you lost everything. Nevertheless, it is very difficult not to eat, especially on the last day, when the evil inclination is very overpowering. (That is to say, the princess told him that now she would make the conditions more lenient, that from now he would not be expected to fast, for that is a very hard condition to meet.) So now, choose a place again, and dwell there also a year, as before. And on the last day you will be allowed to eat. Only you must not sleep, and must not drink wine, that you should not fall asleep. For the essential thing is not to sleep.” So he went and did accordingly.

On the last day, he went there, and saw a spring, with a red appearance and the fragrance of wine. He asked the servant, “Did you see that spring, that ought to have water in it, but its color is red, and its scent is of wine?” And he went and tasted from the spring. And he immediately fell into a sleep that lasted several years — seventy, to be exact. And great numbers of soldiers passed with the equipment that accompanied them. The servant hid himself from the soldiers. After that passed a covered carriage, and in it sat the princess. She stopped by him, descended and sat by him, recognizing who he was. She shook him strongly, but he did not wake. And she started to bemoan, “How many immense efforts and travails he has undergone, these many years, in order to free me, and because of one day that he could have freed me, and lost it...” And she cried a great deal about this, saying “There is great pity for him and for me, that I am here so very long, and cannot leave.” After that, she took her handkerchief from off of her head, and wrote upon it with her tears, and laid it by him. And she rose and boarded her carriage, and rode away.

Afterwards, he awoke, and asked the servant, “Where am I in the world?” So he told him the whole story — that many soldiers had passed there, and that there had been a carriage, and a woman who wept upon him and cried out, that there is great pity on him and on her. In the midst of this, he looked around and saw that there was a handkerchief lying next to him. So he asked “Where did this come from?” The servant explained that she had written upon it with her tears. So he took it and held it up against the sun, and began to see the letters, and he read all that was written there — all her mourning and crying, and that she is no longer in the aforementioned castle, and that he should look for a mountain of gold and a castle of pearls. There he would find her.

So he left the servant behind, and went to look for her alone. And he went for several years searching, and thought to himself, “Certainly a mountain of gold and a castle of pearls would not be found in a settled area.” For he was an expert in geography. So he went to the deserts. And he searched for her there many years.

Afterwards, he saw a giant man, far beyond the normal human limits of size. He was carrying a massive tree, the size of which is not found in settled areas. The man asked him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am a man.” The giant was amazed, and exclaimed, “I have been in the desert such a long time, and I have never seen a man here.” So he told him the whole story, and that he was searching for a mountain of gold and a castle of pearls. The giant answered him, “Certainly, it does not exist at all.” And he discouraged him and said that they had muddled his mind with nonsense, for it surely does not exist. So he started to cry bitterly, for he felt certain that it must exist somewhere. And this giant discouraged him, saying that certainly he had been told nonsense. Yet he (the Second to the King) still said that it must exist.

So the giant said to him, “I think it is nonsense. But since you persist, I am appointed over all the animals. I will do this for you: I will call them all. For they traverse the whole world, perhaps one of them will know where is the mountain and the castle.” And he called them all, from the smallest to the largest, all the varieties of animals, and asked them. And all of them answered that they had not seen these things.

So he said, “You see that they told you nonsense. If you want my advice, turn back, because you certainly will not find it, for it does not exist.” And he pleaded passionately with him, saying, “But it absolutely must exist!”

So the giant said to him, “Behold, in this desert also lives my brother, and he is appointed over all the birds. Perhaps they know, since they fly at great heights — perhaps they saw this mountain and castle. Go to him and tell him that I sent you to him.”

So he went for several years searching for him. And again he found a very large man, as before. He was also carrying a massive tree, as before. And this giant also asked him as had the first. And he told him the whole story, and that his brother had sent him to him. This giant also discouraged him, saying that it certainly did not exist. And he pleaded with him as with the first. Then the giant said to him, “See, I am appointed over all the birds; I will call them, perhaps they know.” So he called all the birds, and asked them all, from the smallest to the largest, and they answered that they did not know anything about this mountain and castle. So the giant said to him, “You see, it certainly does not exist. If you want my advice, turn back, for it simply does not exist.” But he pleaded with him, saying “It certainly exists!”

So the giant said to him, “Further ahead in the desert lives my brother, who is appointed over all the winds, and they run over the whole world. Perhaps they know.” So he went several more years searching, and found also this giant, and he was also carrying a giant tree. And the giant asked him, as the others had. And he told him the whole story, as before. And the giant discouraged him, as before. And he pleaded with him as well. So the third giant said to him, that for his sake he would call all the winds and ask them. He called them, and all the winds came, and he asked them all, and not one of them knew about the mountain and the castle. So the giant said to him, “You see, they told you nonsense.” And the Second to the King began to cry bitterly, and said, “I know that it exists!”

As they were speaking, one more wind came. And the one appointed over them was annoyed with him, saying, “Why did you not come with the rest?” He answered, “I was delayed, for I needed to carry a princess to a mountain of gold and a castle of pearls.” And the Second to the King was overjoyed.

The one appointed asked the wind, “What is expensive there? (That is to say, what things are considered valuable and important there?)” He answered him, “Everything there is very expensive.” So the one appointed over the winds said to the Second to the King, “Seeing that you have been searching for her such a long time, and you went through many difficulties. Perhaps now you will be hindered by expenses. Therefore I am giving you this vessel. Every time you reach into it, you will receive money from it.” And he commanded the previous wind to take him there. The wind came storming, and brought him there, right to the gate. There were guards posted there, that would not let him enter the city. So he reached into the vessel, took out money and bribed them, and entered the city. And it was a beautiful city.

He approached a man, and rented lodgings, for he would need to stay there some time. For it would need much intelligence and wisdom to free her. And how he freed her, he did not tell, but in the end he freed her.

Explanation of the fairy story

The plot consists of four parts:

  1. The king banishes his daughter.
  2. The first attempt of liberation.
  3. The second attempt of liberation.
  4. The third attempt of liberation.

Characters:

The king — God. He is called the king, because he creates a development plan for the world, and everything in the world is under His direction (R. Kaplan).
The daughter of the King — Dvekut, a sense of nearness to the Creator; man's ability to experience, to feel God, the Divine spark. It is Shekhinah (God's Presence), kabbalists call it Sefira Malchus (R. Kaplan).
The Second to the King — the Jewish people as the vanguard of humanity, chosen by God to learn how to reach Dvekut with the Creator and to teach this to all of humanity.
The one appointed over all the animals, the one appointed over all the birds, the one appointed over all the winds — the forces of the universe.

Part I. Rabbi Nachman in the Haggadic form discusses one of the most complicated issues: how by the will of the Creator, it happened that humanity lost the sense of an organic unity with the Creator (cf. with Adam's banishment from Gan Eden).

It's like the Breaking of the Vessels (Shvirat ha-Kelim), when Broken Vessels (Malchus) fall into the power of evil forces (Qliphoth). This means that the world has lost the ability to fully perceive God (R. Kaplan).

Banishment of Malchus to the scope of evil was expressed later in banishment of Shekhinah during the destruction of the Temple (R. Rosenfeld).

Part II. The first attempt to release the King's daughter, or the First attempt to achieve unity with the Creator, was expressed in inhibition of the flesh to elevate the spirit. The King's daughter makes demands to the Second to the King to get away from worldly vanity (“you choose a place, and dwell there a full year”), to renounce the joys of life (“you must long to take me out”) and, most importantly, to accept physical limitations (“And do fasts, and on the last day of the year, you should fast and not sleep the entire day!”). According to the ancients, all this purified a man and brought him closer to God (“and request and hope to free me”). The roots of this worldview can be seen in the Torah: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). And it is also written, “And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh...” (Genesis 6:3). This was the base of one of the most well-known views on man as an object of the struggle between soul and body. Staying in the Other World, where the soul is freed from the body, has been proclaimed as supreme pleasure for the soul, and the best blessing for the soul in This World is considered to be every kind of mortification of the flesh. Here is what Rambam writes about it (“8 Chapters of the Rambam,” Ch. 4). “If those of our faith whose conduct resembles that of the gentiles protest and say that my words do not apply to them — that they are afflicting their bodies and refraining from pleasure for the purpose of training their bodies' powers to be inclined in a [desired] direction... they are making a mistake.” Rambam writes that the Torah never mentions asceticism as an ideal. “Rather, it [the Torah] desires that man should live naturally, following the middle path, eating a moderate portion of food that he is permitted to eat, drinking a moderate portion of what he is permitted to drink, engaging in permitted sexual relations in a moderate way, and creating a society [based on] righteousness and justice. He need not live in caves or on mountains, nor wear sackcloth and [coarse] wool. There is no need to weary the body, or to drain it or oppress it.” Rabbi Yehuda and Levy hold the same line. “Al Khazari: Give me a description of the doings of one of your pious men at the present time. The Rabbi: A pious man is, so to speak, the guardian of his country, who gives to its inhabitants provisions and all they need. He is so just that he wrongs no one, nor does he grant anyone more than his due. Then, when he requires them, he finds them obedient to his call. He orders, they execute; he forbids, they abstain. Al Khazari: I asked thee concerning a pious man, not a prince. The Rabbi: The pious man is nothing but a prince who is obeyed by his senses, and by his mental as well as his physical faculties, which he governs corporeally... He is fit to rule, because if he were the prince of a country he would be as just as he is to his body and soul...” (Kuzari, 3:2–5). King Solomon expresses the same idea. “A righteous man [tzadik] regardeth the life of his beast...” (Mishlei, 12:10). And King David said, “He giveth to the beast his food” (Psalm 147:9) (The word ”behema,” which is usually translated as “beast,” may be understood both as an actual animal and as the animality in man.)

Now the question arises before us, how should we understand the stories about the ascetic behaviour of some of the great righteous men? Rambam explains that some righteous men turn to it to balance (bring to an equilibrium state) certain qualities of the soul. Here are his words. “At times, some of the pious have deviated toward an extreme at certain times by fasting, giving up sleep at night, refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, shunning women, wearing [coarse] wool and sackcloth, living on mountains, or seeking solitude in the deserts. These [deeds] were performed to correct [their conduct, as explained above]...” (“8 Chapters,” Ch. 4).

Rambam strictly warns that such behaviour cannot lead masses of people to achieving harmony with the Creator. “When the fools saw the pious perform the above activities, they did not comprehend their indent, and thought that the activities were good in their own right. They began to emulate the behaviour [of the pious], thinking that through this they would become like them, [attaining inner refinement]. [With this intent,] they began afflicting their bodies through many different types of penance, thinking that they had reached peaks [of divine service], and that this brings them close to God, and if God were the enemy of the body and desired to destroy and crush it. They do not realize that these deeds are bad, and that they will lead a person to undesirable character traits. To use an analogy, they are like people who are untrained in medicine, who see an experienced physician administer potions of coloquintida, scammony and aloe to patients who are dangerously ill, and prevent them from eating ordinary food. [Through these herbs,] these patients were healed and saved from great danger. These fools, however, jumped to the conclusion that if these foods could heal the ill, they could surely maintain and enhance the wellbeing of the healthy. Therefore, they began to use them at all times and to follow [the diet] of the ill. [Such a person] will surely become ill. Similarly, such people will become spiritually ill from using remedies while they are healthy” (ibid.).

Now it becomes clear why the first attempt of the Second to the King to release the King's Daughter did not lead to success.

Part III. The second attempt to release. At this time, Imagination is declared to be the main enemy of humanity. Indeed, the human perception of the world is biased. Information from the sense organs is integrated and arranged in a single picture (dynamic, not static) with help of Imagination. Sense organs are not able to cover all the details of any situation, and then Imagination fills in the gaps itself. An interview of witnesses of a single incident can illustrate that differences occur not only in describing small details, but also in something substantial. Rambam explains, “The element of imagination: this power [relates to the faculty of memory and makes it possible to] recall the impression of various incidents after they are no longer perceptible by the senses.” (“8 Chapters of the Rambam,” Ch. 1). Please notice, how it is precisely written not using “raw” information from the sense organs is retained in the human memory, but “impressions,” that is an image drawn by Imagination. “[The imagination encompasses the capacity...] to compound some and separate others [impressions]. It is the capacity that enables a person to combine certain experiences he has had along with others he never had nor ever could grasp” (ibid.). That is why the test, which the hero of Rabbi Nahman's tale cannot complete, is a source of red water with smell of wine. A man is often so immersed in his own images, that is no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Rabbi Nachman says in Likutey Moaran (60) that seventy years of sleep of the Second to the King symbolizes a state of human consciousness, in which all seventy faces of Torah are hidden from him7. One's own subjective impressions can fill in all of human consciousness, leaving no room for objective knowledge. But without it the goal, unity with God, is impossible.

Rabbi Nachman points out the sleep and the wine. “Sleep” is a state in which Imagination is freed from the control of Intellect. Today, it is possible to consider aimless sitting in front of a TV screen, as well as spending many hours on internet chats or with primitive computer games to be among the “sleep” category . “Wine” is the chemical (or some other) means of facilitating the emancipation of Imagination and you can also include here drugs and all other kinds of hallucinogens.

I'll give only a few sayings from prominent people of different nations regarding imagination. “The human race is governed by its imagination” (Napoleon I). “Imagination is a second life with a lot of options” (E. Sevrus). “Never give full faith to your imagination: it will make monsters” (Pythagoras). [The last is incorrect: I didn't find this aphorism of Pythagoras! — Daniel Alievsky]

Now I want to ask that if Imagination is so bad in itself, then why, according to Rabbi Nahmani, did the struggle with Imagination not lead humanity to a cherished purpose? Is evil inherent in Imagination itself, or is the issue that while we struggle with it we lose sight of the underlying phenomena? In my opinion, the saying of the French writer Yosef Joubert can be a key to answer these questions. “Imagination is the eye of the soul.” Imagination is out of control only at first glance, but actually it depends on two things. Firstly, on what a person sees and hears. In other words, Imagination works more easily with information received through the sense organs, than with imagined images. Recall, “The eyes see, the heart desires, and the body commits the crime” (Midrash Tanhuma). Secondly, Imagination depends on the purity of the human soul. That is just what the Torah teaches us in the section about tzitzit, emphasizing, “...and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring” (Numbers 15:39). The “heart” is named first, the “eyes” is listed after. First, passions are raging in the human heart, and then with his eyes he seeks out something that can satisfy those passions. The simple meaning (pshat) of the commandment “Thou shalt not covet...” (Exodus 20:17) also speaks to this. Really, if we take, for example, “thy neighbour's wife,” then the prohibition of any practical acts in this direction can be logically derived from other parts of the Torah. For example, from the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The uniqueness (hidush) of this fragment of the Torah (“Thou shalt not covet...”) is that the Torah prohibits the imagination (for example, sexual), in which a person takes delight in something belonging to someone else (for example, from another man's wife). And so it is not something that he sees that generates passion, but the passions of his soul receiving material for their fantasies from something that was seen. You can find a hint of this in the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu, while repeating the Ten Sayings (Deuteronomy 5), in addition to the phrase “lo tahmod” (from “hemda,” “pleasantness”), is also using “lo titave” (from “taava,” “passion”). The conclusion is that the Torah requires a person to stop criminal fantasies by the volition of one's Intellect. It is a correction of the situation ex post facto, but initially you should purify the qualities of your soul, in order to create more sublime fantasies. All of these things are very important. Rambam writes that the (purified) Imaginative Faculty (Koah a-Medame) is used while receiving the prophecy (“Moreh Nevuhim,” Part 2, Ch. 36).

Part IV. The third attempt to release the King's Daughter. This attempt is qualitatively different from the previous attempts by another scale and another level of consciousness. Prior to that, it was considered necessary to “choose a place and dwell there,” that is, self-isolation from the outside world is a necessary condition for spiritual growth. Now all this is realized through the path, the search, and communication with the world. Communication not only goes on with people, but also with animals, forces of nature (in the tale, winds) and even with spiritual beings at different levels (in the tale, ones appointed over all the animals, all the birds, all the winds). Previously the Body was suppressed by fasts, and now it is compliantly serving the ultimate purpose. Previously Imagination was struggled against, but now the image of “a mountain of gold and a castle of pearls” supports the faith in the Second to the King and doesn't allow him to give up his search. I'll briefly dwell on this image. One of the ideas that the Jews had received at the Sinai mountain and the rest of mankind have received from the Jews, is the idea of the coming of the Mashiach. All the while, until it is finally realized, this idea remains the property of Imagination. Jewish people have carried this “fantasy” through all its history. It was especially hard to believe in the Mashiach during the exile, when everyone said to the Jews the words of the One appointed over all the animals, “Turn back, because you certainly will not find it, for it does not exist.” “And he pleaded passionately with him, saying, ‘But it absolutely must exist!’” The more the Jews were oppressed, the stronger the faith of the Jewish people became in closeness of the End Deliverance.

...Now everything is different. The Jews have found their “mountain of gold and castle of pearls.” “‘What is expensive there?’ He answered him, ‘Everything there is very expensive.’” Indeed, everything: thoughts, turning to God, the power of imagination, creating a feeling of nearness to the Creator, and the body performing His will.

Rabbi Nachman has not finished his tale, because all the details of the Tikkun were not yet revealed in his generation (according to tradition the final stage of Tikkun ha-Olam is Tikkun ha-Berit). Maybe we shall be able to “finish the tale.”


  1. Seventy faces of Torah is a symbol of all true knowledge about the world and about man compressed by God into a relatively short text, which is the Written Torah. This knowledge can be obtained by analyzing the text of the Torah in different ways. Thus, it is emphasized that the Divine reality, embodied in the world or reflected in the Torah, has only “seventy faces” but not somewhat as it is when “opinions differ.”
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