Rabbi Nachman's Aleph-Bet Book is a collection of aphorisms on the various character traits, positive and negative, as well as other aspects of the spiritual life of the Jew. The material is arranged by subject in alphabetical order and is divided into two parts.
The first part was written by Rabbi Nachman in his youth. He selected from numerous holy books those pieces relating to ethical behavior and righteous qualities. He did this in order to facilitate his recollection of these traits: to have before his eyes the benefits of each and every good quality as well as the harm brought on by its absence and by the possession of bad traits: to have before his eyes the benefits of each every good quality as well as the harm brought on by its absence and by the possession of bad traits. Whether it was the Sages' explanation of these qualities or the implied understanding of a Biblical verse or Rabbinical teaching which he was able to discern through his keen ability to understand one thing from the next – everything was recorded concisely and according to subject. This, so that he could then follow these good paths and keep to the ways of the righteous. Indeed, many years later upon seeing a copy of the completed work in the hands of one of his followers, Rabbi Nachman remarked, "My dear beloved friend, my dear loyal friend. This [book] is what made me into a Jew."
The second part is similar to the first in form and structure, and the aphorisms are, in the main, on the same subjects as in the first part. However, this second par, which also came to be known as the New Aleph-Bet, was written later on in his life and Rabbi Nachman revealed that it was based on deeper understanding of the sources than the Old Aleph-Bet. Accordingly, there are a good many pieced in this part whose sources and reasoning can only be somewhat understood when studies within a broader context as they appear in Rabbi Nachman's Likutey Moharan (translated in part by The Breslov
Research Institute, 1986). Their inclusion in this work on attributes, albeit in concise form, was evidently due to the very practical advice they offer on the character traits which a person should strive to acquire or work to avoid.
Rabbi Nachman kept the existence of his Aleph-Bet Book a guarded secret until after his arrival in Breslov in 1802. Thereafter, he began dictating the first part of the book to Rabbi Nathan. As he read from his manuscript, Rabbi Nachman carefully selected only those pieced which he wished to reveal to the world. This would explain why he never gave over his original notes to be copied in their entirety and why, although Rabbi Nachman's own manuscript contained references to the sources he use in collecting these aphorisms, they were never recorded. Only after the first printing in 1811 were there any sources included; initially by Rabbi Nathan in 1821 and then in 1873-74 edition, which for the first time incorporated the references researched by the Tcheriner Rav, and still later in 1909-10 in an edition which was published containing further sources researched by Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (See Appendix III).
Rabbi Nathan began transcribing the first part of the text in the summer of 1803. but he was only able to complete about half a folio and then only a bit more at a second session three or four months later, after which no further work was attempted for another two years. Finally, before Chanukah 1805, Rabbi Nathan had the opportunity to be in Breslov for an extended period of time. For three consecutive weeks, Rabbi Nathan spent a good part of his day with the Rebbe until the transcribing of the first part of the Aleph-Bet Book was completed. In Rabbi Nathan's own words, "It was very difficult for the Rebbe [who carefully dictated each piece, considering and weighing his every word]. But, because of the great benefit which he knew people would have from it and because of his love of Israel, he dedicated himself to its completion." Rabbi Nathan also writes that Rabbi Nachman had in his notes about an equal amount of material which he never gave over. This
included as many as two-hundred folios on the subject of Healing alone (see Appendix II).
As for the second part of the book, prior to Rosh HaShanah 1808 Rabbi Nachman gave over several sheets of material to his followers. As Rabbi Nathan was not present in Breslov at the time, he asked these other chassidim to alphabetize this new material. Unlike the first part, these aphorisms were recorded by Rabbi Nachman consecutively, each at the particular time her perceived it. After Rabbi Nathan arrived, he was given these sheets and later on received some additional material from the Rebbe. All this he organized and integrated with the Old Aleph-Bet, thus arranging the entire work in order. At the Rebbe's insistence, Rabbi Nathan took those pieces which were applicable to more than one character trait and incorporated them into each of the appropriate subject headings; hence the many repetitions within the second part of the book. It was Rabbi Nachman's intention to make it easer for the reader- for the student wishing to put into practice these holy worlds of advice- to use the Aleph-Bet Book as a handy manual and guide for spiritual advancement. In Rabbi Nathan's words, "May God lead us on the true path. And, 'just as we have merited organizing them, so may we merits performing them' (Passover Haggadah) – until Israel returns to her place of dwelling like the dove to its nest. May it be speedily, in our time. Amen."