By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The most popular joke circulating amongst travelers to Uman this year is about someone who has a case in court and is advised either to hire the best possible attorney and fight, plead guilty and hope for leniency, or claim insanity. Rosh Hashanah is the day in court: some visit great Chassidic rebbes and ask them to intercede, like a good lawyer; others go to shul and pray, hoping for Heaven to be lenient; and then there are those who go to Uman.
Though no appreciable impact has been discerned, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, zt’l (1920–2013), in one of his weekly motzaei Shabbos shiurim in 2007, suggested that Uman need not be visited, especially when yom tov adjoins Shabbos for a total of three days. Rabbi Yosef stressed that tombs of the great sages of the Talmud are found in Israel, as are those of our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He emphasized that remaining in Israel would be preferable. After a storm of controversy and dozens of meetings between Rabbi Yosef and Breslover leaders, Rabbi Yosef seemed to backtrack when he later agreed, in his following weekly shiur, that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, zt’l (1772–1810), was indeed a great tzaddik. However, the late Sephardic chief rabbi did not rescind his suggestion that husbands and fathers refrain from going to Uman.
This year, Rosh Hashanah was a three-day event, making Rabbi Yosef’s admonition applicable. Nevertheless, in spite of the turbulent political situation in all of Europe and especially in Ukraine, indications of interest may well have been increased by Rabbi Yosef’s opposition. Geoffrey R. Pyatt, who is the eighth United States ambassador to Ukraine, warned those considering travel to Ukraine to evaluate their personal security situation in light of political instability and the continuing possibility of violence.
In addition, the health ministry of Ukraine warned that the 30,000 Jews expected in Uman may spread the Ebola virus as well as other diseases. The ministry detailed its fears. Those coming from America, Mexico, and Bolivia might bring Lassa fever; those coming from Nigeria might bring Dengue fever; those coming from America and Germany could bring the Ebola virus; and those coming from India and Nepal could be carriers of cholera. The smorgasbord of possible diseases was meant to further amplify animosity to the influx of Jews coming to pray.
This year, as in the past 25 years, tens of thousands of travelers, probably in excess of 30,000, descended on Uman, to be near the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, zt’l, during Rosh Hashanah.
What happens in Uman does not stay in Uman. The events are relished and animatedly relived by the tens of thousands of participants all year long. An otherwise sleepy backwoods village suddenly comes alive with tens of thousands of Jews from all streams of observant lifestyles intermingling. Many knitted, colorful yarmulkes are seen amidst black hats, shtreimels, spudiks, Yerushalmi knitted white yarmulkes (that look like knitted sleeping caps with pom-pom tops), and almost every type of hat and head-covering available.
At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, September 24, erev Rosh Hashanah, the first minyanim to recite erev Rosh Hashanah Selichos began in the humongous shul, which has more than 32,000 square feet of space with seating for more than 10,000. At 4 a.m., the official minyan began and no empty seat could be found. Throughout erev Rosh Hashanah, thousands are on line for the opportunity of a few seconds of prayer at the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman, zt’l, who promised that all those who pray at his gravesite on erev Rosh Hashanah would be helped by him, that he would literally schlep them out of Gehinnom by their payos, if necessary.
This year, thousands had arrived before the preceding Shabbos Nitzavim-Vayelech, September 19–20, to be in Uman and next to the gravesite for the first recitation of Selichos. They came from all over the world, arriving early to prepare themselves for the intense events. The Shabbos tefillos and meals were accompanied by many lectures offered by Breslover leaders. During all the days of the Rosh Hashanah season in Uman, a fully functioning Breslover yeshiva is open to all. The roshei yeshiva from Israel oversee the many yeshiva students who come for Rosh Hashanah.
Most pilgrims arrived Sunday through Tuesday. However, sizable numbers also reached Uman early Wednesday morning. A special highlight took place on Wednesday at noon, when tens of thousands gathered at the gravesite to recite together and aloud ten chapters of Tehillim: chapters 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 140, collectively called the Tikkun Haklali. Audio of the recitation was broadcast live to Israel, America, and wherever else Breslover chassidim are to be found.
As yom tov approached, those who had their yom tov clothing with them wore them. In years past, massive dislocation of luggage deprived many chassidim of their yom tov clothing. As a result, many travelers never let go of their luggage. The many Breslover chassidim who come from Jerusalem wear white caftans. When the mass pilgrimages began almost 20 years ago, local inhabitants wondered aloud as to why so many doctors and pharmacists came.
On Rosh Hashanah, the adjacent Sophia Park serves as the destination for Tashlich. The park’s designers created a sophisticated hydro-technical system, supplying water to the upper and lower park ponds throughout the preserve. It is here that Breslover chassidim and all Rosh Hashanah visitors converge for Tashlich. Tens of thousands of penitents circle the bodies of water and pray at their edges, making for a colorful and captivating spectacle.
This year, a huge mikveh was set up behind the main shul. The mikveh has the capacity to accommodate up to 3,000 persons simultaneously. A full staff of Israeli rabbis and maintenance men were recruited to ensure the halachic integrity of the mikveh as well as its smooth functioning. In addition, local maintenance workers were hired to assist in the continuous changing of the water and in keeping the facility clean and orderly.
At the Kiev and Odessa airports, where almost all pilgrims arrived, Breslover representatives, together with delegates of the Kiev kehillah, were on hand to help with formalities and any problems. Interpreters helped many get through necessary processing. Nakdimon, the Breslover organization created to help pilgrims get to Uman, established a stopover station halfway from the airport to Uman. Many were able to stop there, catch their breath, have some coffee or a cold drink, eat something, use bathrooms, etc., without having to mingle with possibly hostile locals. The stopover station had both Israeli and Ukrainian security details in addition to Hatzalah members present and available. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.