Reb Naftali, whose maternal and paternal forebears were famed for their scholarship and piety, was born on the day the Baal Shem Tov died, and he proved to be one of the Besht’s primary successors.
During his early years he studied in the Yeshiva of R. Meshulem Igra, one of the Torah giants of the time, where his fellow students were R. Mordechai Benet and R. Yaakov Loberbaum, who were to become two of the leading scholars of the next generation. R. Naftali then traveled to the court of R. Elimelech of Lizensk, whose practice was not to admit yachsanim (those of eminent families). Because of R. Naftali’s illustrious lineage, R. Elimelech at first refused to admit him but finally acquiesced to R. Naftali’s entreaties. He later was associated with the greatest Zaddikim of the time, particularly R. Mendel of Riminev, R. Yaakov Yitzchok of Lublin (the Chozeh), and R. Yisrael of Kozhnitz.
During the Napoleonic wars the Zaddikim were divided in their attitude towards Napoleon. R. Mendel of Riminev strongly supported Napoleon and felt the wars represented Gog and Magog and were a prelude to the Messiah. His disciple Reb Naftali, as well as R. Shneur Zalman, the Baal HaTanya, were strongly opposed, sensing that Napoleon’s victory would introduce changes which would threaten the Jewish community’s way of life.
Reb Naftali is a crucial figure in the development of Galician Chassidus and there are many “minhagei Ropshitz”, which are followed in Galicia. He was known for his profound wisdom, sharp sense of humor and musical gifts. He insisted that young men should devote themselves exclusively to Torah study and not be involved in Chassidus until they were 25. In his later years he perceived that some Chassidim followed Chassidic practices but were negligent in basic halachic requirements, such as timely prayer and shemah, and questioned if it would not be better if the Chassidic way were replaced by greater concentration on Torah study. When R. Yosef Babad, the future author of the Minchas Chinuch came to him he sent him away, advising him to return home and pursue his studies.
He emphasized the power of prayer and stressed that a person must be able to pray in all circumstances and never say “I don’t have the head for prayer now”. In answer to the question how can a zaddik undo a divine decree, he replied that through his actions and prayer a zaddik creates a new world, to which the old decree does not apply. He commented that Moses was shown each generation first, and then shown their leaders, because he might be dismayed at seeing Naftali as a leader. However, having first seen the generation, he understood that Naftali was appropriate for his generation.
Reb Naftali was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of sukkah and it is said that every day he was preoccupied with some aspect of that mitzvah, which was particularly suited to his neshama.
Reb Naftali refused to give permission for the publication of his writings, but with the concurrence of his famous disciple, R. Chaim Sanzer, his two works, Zerah Kodesh and Ayala Shelucha were finally published. R. Chaim recalled that though R. Chaim Vital had prohibited publication of the writings of the Holy Ari, his reluctance was overridden by later scholars. The only praise he permitted on his tombstone was “the singular one in his generation in the knowledge of G-d”. [“Yachid B’Doro B’Chochmat Elokim”].