“The smallest among the nations,” the Jewish people never achieved greatness in terms of numbers or power. Time and time again, it appeared as if the plucky nation of monotheists would be swallowed up by the religion du jour, but we have been blessed with a succession of brave and insightful Jewish leaders who saw to it that the flame of Judaism remained strong. Here is our (somewhat arbitrary) list of Jewish leaders who beat the odds and were pivotal in preserving Judaism, from ancient times to the present.

1. Abraham

Born into a world where statues and kings were viewed as deities, Abraham was alone in his belief in the one invisible Creator of heaven and earth. According to the Midrash, despite immense ridicule from his own family (his father sold idols), Abraham continued his campaign to spread monotheism. Even King Nimrod, who challenged Abraham’s beliefs by throwing him into a fiery pit, could not silence the confident young boy.

Ultimately, his vision and efforts yielded success: Three and a half millennia later, the majority of the world’s humans worship G‑d, and consider themselves heirs to Abraham’s tradition.

Read an Overview of Abraham’s Accomplishments

2. Jacob

Jacob never had it easy. Younger and weaker than his twin brother, he preferred to remain in the tent studying while Esau (Isaac’s favorite) hunted and built a reputation for his evil behavior. Things only became more complicated when Jacob “snatched” the blessings Isaac wished to give Esau.

Fearing his brother’s retaliation, he fled to his uncle Laban’s house alone and penniless. He worked for seven years for the right to marry his cousin Rachel, only to be tricked into marrying her sister, Leah, instead. Jacob continued to work hard for his uncle, even as Laban constantly changed the terms of his employment in an effort to swindle him out of his wages. In the end, Jacob traveled back to the Holy Land with 11 sons (the 12th would soon be born), much livestock, and most importantly, a firm foundation upon which the People of Israel would emerge.

Read a Biography of Jacob

3. Joseph

Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

Born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, Joseph was hated by his brothers, who resented the preferential treatment he received from his father. They sold him into slavery in Egypt, where he soon found himself incarcerated on false accusations of attempted rape.

Joseph managed to maintain his positive outlook and strong faith (“the name of G‑d was constantly on his lips,” the sages say) through the hard times, until he was abruptly pulled out of prison and promoted to Pharaoh’s second in command.

He again faced tremendous odds as he prepared Egypt for a famine of unprecedented magnitude, but his work was crowned with success as people from all over the area (including his own family) came to purchase food from him.

He was ably placed to transfer his extended family from starvation-scorched Canaan to Egypt, where he could care for them for the duration of the seven-year hunger.

Read the Story of Joseph

4. Miriam

Art by Natalia Kadish
Art by Natalia Kadish

Things took a turn for the worse when Pharaoh cunningly enslaved the Israelites after Joseph’s passing. Miriam was born at the height of the suffering, and her parents—Levites and leaders of the nation—chose her name from the word mar, the Hebrew word for “bitter.”

Her parents separated when she was a child, not wanting to bring more children into a life of slavery. Miriam insisted that they remarry, prophesying that her mother would give birth to a boy who would redeem the people.

Her parents took her advice, but when Pharaoh subsequently decreed that the boys (including Miriam’s newborn brother) be thrown into the river, even her father doubted her. Miriam watched over her brother as he floated in a basket on the Nile river, even managing to arrange for her mother to nurse the boy.

Miriam lived to see her prophecy borne out: The baby boy grew up to become the legendary Moses, the leader who brought the Jewish people out of Egypt.

Read more about Miriam

5. Jephthah

Jephthah (or Yiftach) of Gilead was a social outcast, the son of a prostitute. His half-brothers rejected him saying, “You shall not inherit in our father's house for you are the son of another woman,” and he became the head of a gang of ruffians.

When the Ammonites terrorized the people of Gilead, threatening the safety of the people of Israel, the elders approached Jephthah and begged him to become their leader. Scarred from years of abuse, Jephthah was initially hesitant, but eventually agreed to lead the charge against the Ammonite invaders. Indeed, “The L‑rd delivered them into his hand … and the children of Ammon were subdued.”

But Jephthah’s rags-to-riches story of instant stardom ends tragically. Unschooled in tradition, Jephtah foolishly promised that whatever “shall come forth from the doors of my house towards me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall be to the L‑rd, and I will offer him up for a burnt-offering." That first thing was his own daughter, and he “did to her as his vow which he had vowed.

Read the Story of Jephthah in Judges 11

6. King David

David, the youngest of seven boys, was left to tend the sheep while his older brothers went off to battle. His big break came when his father sent him to bring provisions to his brothers who were fighting the Philistines. Upon learning of the giant who frightened everyone, David prayed to G‑d and bravely felled Goliath with stones from his slingshot.

King Saul chose David to be his son-in-law, but David continued to face the prospect of death as his paranoid but still powerful father-in-law repeatedly tried to kill him.

Nevertheless, David maintained his integrity and refused to hurt Saul, even mourning him when he fell in battle. As predicted by the prophet Samuel, David eventually ascended to the throne of Israel.

Learn 15 Life Lessons from King David

7. Hezekiah

King Hezekiah presided over Judea in an era of spiritual awakening. Under his reign, every Jewish child was given a solid Torah education. Yet Hezekiah and his people suffered mightily at the hands of King Sennacherib of Assyria, who exacted heavy taxes.

Eager to spread his reign, Sennacherib and his mighty army swarmed the gates of Jerusalem, certain they would easily crush Hezekiah and the city’s defenders. In Sennacherib’s own chronicles, which have been preserved in the Sennacherib Prisms, he boasts that Hezekiah was trapped like a caged bird.

The righteous Hezekiah turned to G‑d in prayer, and a miracle happened. The Assyrian army died overnight, and the king was forced to flee for his life.

Read More About the End of Sennacherib

8. Daniel

Daniel was the Jewish advisor to Darius the Mede (as well as other monarchs). Jealous of Daniel’s success, court officials convinced the king to make it illegal to pray to any god or human other than the king himself.

Knowing that the punishment for disobedience was being cast into a den of hungry lions, most people would have been afraid to risk defying the powerful king.

But Daniel continued to climb to the upper story of his home, where his windows faced Jerusalem, to pray three times a day as he had always done. When the king found out, Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den. At dawn, Darius rushed outside and called out, “Daniel, was the G‑d Whom you continually worshipped able to rescue you?”

“My G‑d,” said the miraculously unharmed Daniel, “sent His angel who shut the mouths of the lions so that they wouldn’t harm me.”

Read the Story of Daniel’s Amazing Life

9. Esther

A young Jewish orphan raised in the home of her cousin Mordechai, Esther was forcibly taken to the harem of the Persian King Ahasuerus. Determined not to become queen, Esther refused to use the cosmetics offered to her, but it was to no avail. She found favor in the king’s eyes and was made queen.

When the wily Haman hatched a plot to have all Jews in the kingdom murdered, the situation seemed bleak. Esther had hidden her Jewish identity from the king, and women’s rights were nonexistent. But after fasting and praying to G‑d, Esther mustered up the courage to confront Haman in the presence of her powerful husband. She could have been killed for the temerity of speaking up, yet she rose to the occasion, saving the Jewish people from certain death.

Read the Book of Esther

10. Ezra and Nehemiah

Seventy years after the destruction of the holy Temple and the Jewish exile from the Holy Land, the prospect of rebuilding Jewish life in Judea seemed like a pipe dream.

Yet Ezra and Nehemiah led the returnees to Zion with determination and inspiration. Sabotage, slander, infighting, ignorance, assimilation, and crushing poverty were some of the many challenges the duo had to contend with, but their efforts met with success. The Second Temple was built, Judaism bolstered, and Jewish life in the Holy Land resumed.

Learn More About Ezra

Learn More About Nehemiah

11. Maccabees

The Greeks were the mightiest warriors, and their culture was quickly becoming dominant in the ancient world. As they built gymnasia, temples, and theaters, just about everyone accepted it as a fact that Judaism would fade away.

Everyone except a small band of ragtag guerilla fighters, led by a priest named Judah Maccabee. With “Who is like You among the strong ones, oh G‑d?” on their lips, they resisted bravely. While they could not match the elephants and armor the Greeks brought to war, the Maccabees utilized local knowledge, agility, and Divine assistance.

As one victory followed another, the Maccabees trounced the much larger Greek army and restored the Temple service. Their victory is celebrated every year during Chanukah.

Read the Thrilling Story of the Maccabees

12. Rachel, wife of Akiva

Rachel was the daughter of one of the richest men in Jerusalem, Kalba Savua. It was taken for granted that Rachel would marry someone from the upper crust of Jewish society. To her parents’ dismay, she chose an unlettered shepherd named Akiva. Her parents were so aghast that they banished her from their home with nothing at all.

Rachel knew that her husband had the potential to become a great Torah scholar if given a chance. She endured crushing poverty and years of loneliness while her husband was away at yeshivah. Even her neighbors mocked her for her foolhardiness. Yet she emerged victorious when Akiva returned to Jerusalem with 24,000 students, recognized as the greatest Torah sage of his era. Rabbi Akiva would gratefully tell his students that all his accomplishments, and all of theirs too, were credited to his wife, Rachel.

Read the Touching Story of Rachel

13. Rabbi Chiya

Rabbi Chiya lived in the tumultuous times after the destruction of the second Temple at the hands of the Romans, when Jews were at real risk of forgetting their traditions. There were entire cities with no organized Jewish education. Recognizing that change must start at the grassroots, he devised a brilliant and effective plan to ensure that Torah not be forgotten.

First he planted flax, from which he wove nets. He used the nets to trap deer, which he slaughtered and fed to orphans. He used the deer skins to write Torah scrolls which he brought to towns where there were no Torah teachers. He would distribute the scrolls to five children, teaching them until each child had mastered one book of the Five Books of Moses. He would also divide the six orders of the Mishnah amongst six children. He then instructed each child to teach his peers whatever he had learned, thus establishing Torah scholarship in a town where there had been none. His work of spreading Torah was so effective that Rabbi Judah the prince declared Rabbi Chiya’s accomplishments greater than his own.

14. Maimonides

Image of Maimonides (Wikimedia)
Image of Maimonides (Wikimedia)

A philosopher and halakhic authority of the highest order, he is now revered as one of the greatest Jewish teachers of all times. But during his own lifetime, Maimonides was subject to scorn, ridicule, and slander.

People were wary of the great sage who wrote with such authority that he did not cite Talmudic sources for his teachings, and they feared that his philosophical views were heretical. From Baghdad to France, Jews debated whether or not to accept Maimonides as a legitimate source of Jewish teachings.

In the centuries after his death, controversy continued to rage, and even his mausoleum was desecrated by hot-headed vandals.

However, as history has borne out, Maimonidean writings can be found in every yeshivah, studied in every synagogue, and revered by Jews everywhere.

Learn about the Rambam (Maimonides)

15. Baal Shem Tov

© Zalman Kleinman
© Zalman Kleinman

Born to impoverished parents and orphaned at the tender age of five, young Yisrael grew up in a Jewish world where rigid social barriers separated the scholars and the well-heeled from the unwashed and unlettered masses. Following the ways of mystics, he envisioned a world where every person was valued and loved, where everyone had access to Torah learning, and every person felt the intrinsic worth of his or her contribution.

Unfazed by naysayers who thought he was delusional, Yisrael Baal Shem Tov founded the Chassidic movement, which breathed new life into the Jewish world, bringing passion, meaning, and vitality to Jewish observance and belief.

Read Teachings, Stories, and More From the Baal Shem Tov

16. The Sixth Rebbe of Chabad

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, teaching Torah to children was punishable by years of harsh labor or even death. With his followers disappearing on a nightly basis, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—knew it was only a matter of time until he too would be taken. Yet as the champion of Jewish life behind the iron curtain, he continued to foster Jewish life, founding mikvahs and secret yeshivahs, with bravery and determination.

Following a 1927 arrest and commuted death sentence, the Rebbe started again from scratch in Poland, where he built Chabad institutions and led Soviet Jewry via coded letters.

The Holocaust forced him to the shores of the United States. On his very first day, well-meaning supporters told the Rebbe not to try to build yeshivahs in the United States, claiming it was a lost cause and would only cause him heartache.

But the Rebbe was not deterred. From his wheelchair, the very next day he began a yeshivah in New York and set about laying the groundwork for a string of Jewish day schools all across the Northeast. His efforts were crowned with success. Under the stewardship of his successor, the seventh Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—there grew a burgeoning Chabad presence in all 50 states and more than 100 countries around the world.