The Talmud1 tells us that one of the reasons the Jewish people were exiled from the Land of Israel and scattered throughout the world is so that righteous converts would be able to join our ranks. Throughout history, the Jewish people have been enriched by many sincere converts from different nations who became Torah teachers and left their mark on Jewish history. Some of these converts descended from our enemies who had tried to destroy us.

Sisera’s Descendant Rabbi Akiva


About a century and a half after the Jewish people, led by Joshua, settled in the Land of Israel, pockets of the land remained under the control of the Canaanite nations who terrorized the Jews living nearby. In the north, King Yavin and his subjects constantly attacked the Jews, forcing them to shelter in walled cities and avoid the main highways.2

One of King Yavin’s generals, the powerful Sisera, oppressed the Jewish people for 20 years. Cruel and arrogant, he mocked the Jews and their G‑d.3

Upon Divine command, the prophetess Devorah and Barak the son of Abinoam led the Jews in war against Sisera. The decisive battle took place on the banks of the Kishon stream, at the foot of Mount Tabor.4 Though greatly outnumbered, the Jewish army smote Sisera’s army. According to tradition, loud thunder confused Sisera’s troops and caused them to strike one another.5 They soon began to flee, with the Jewish army hot in pursuit.

Realizing that he would be killed as soon as the Jews recognized him, Sisera jumped off his chariot and fled by foot, alone. In search of a place to hide, he ran to a nearby tent, which belonged to a woman named Yael.6

When Yael saw Sisera heading toward her tent, she made a decision that changed the course of history. Yael invited Sisera in, told him not to be afraid, and provided him with a hiding place and a jug of warm milk.

Exhausted from his misadventures and relaxed by the warm milk, Sisera soon fell asleep. This was the moment Yael had been waiting for. She grabbed a heavy tent peg and drove it into Sisera’s temple, killing him instantly.7

Sisera’s death completed the Jewish victory over King Yavin, who never dared to bother the Jews again.8

Rabbi Akiva

The Gemara tells us that the descendants of Sisera learned Torah in Jerusalem.9 Who were those descendants? Jewish tradition names Rabbi Akiva, the foremost Torah sage who lived during and after the destruction of the Second Temple.10

Rabbi Akiva’s father, Yosef, was a convert. As a child, Akiva did not receive much of a Jewish education. Only at age 40, with the support and encouragement of his wife Rachel, did he begin to learn Torah. With immense dedication and perseverance, he compensated for his late start, moving up to more advanced learning and then to teaching.11

Rabbi Akiva encountered many challenges on his path to greatness. His 24,000 students died in an epidemic, but instead of plunging into despair, Rabbi Akiva gathered five more students, who later carried on teaching and learning Torah through dangerous times.12

When Rabbi Akiva was already an old man, the Roman rulers outlawed teaching Torah in an attempt to prevent Jewish rebellion against their rule. Ignoring the danger, Rabbi Akiva continued teaching his students. When asked why he was risking his life, he gave the famous reply that just like fish cannot survive without water, the Jewish people cannot survive without Torah.13

Toward the end of his long life (he died at 120), Rabbi Akiva was arrested for the crime of teaching Torah in public. As he was tortured to death, he consoled his students, telling them that he welcomed the opportunity to give up his life for G‑d’s sake14.

Rabbi Akiva left a tremendous legacy of Torah teachings, which are recorded in the Mishna and studied to this day.

Read: 18 Facts About Rabbi Akiva

Sennacherib’s Descendants Shemaya and Avtalyon


Over 500 years after Sisera’s defeat, an even more powerful enemy threatened to destroy the Jewish people. His name was Sennacherib, and he ruled Assyria, a kingdom northeast of the Land of Israel.

In those days, there were two Jewish kingdoms: the Kingdom of Judah in the south, where the tribes of Judah and Benjamin lived, and the Kingdom of Israel in the north, where the other 10 tribes lived. Sennacherib conquered the Kingdom of Israel and exiled the 10 Tribes.15 To this day, where the 10 Tribes went remains the greatest mystery of Jewish history.

Read: Where Are the 10 Lost Tribes?

On a quest to conquer the rest of the world, Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, which at the time was ruled by King Hezekiah of Judah.

Greatly outnumbered, the Jews prepared for war and prayed. Through the prophet Isaiah, they received a message from G‑d that Sennacherib and his army would not enter Jerusalem but would go back the way they came.16

What happened next was an open miracle. The Book of Kings tells us, “That night, an angel of G‑d went out and struck 185,000 in the Assyrian camp, and the next morning, they were all dead.” The Jews in Jerusalem were saved without shooting a single arrow!17

King Sennacherib himself was not killed by the angel. He escaped back to Assyria, only to be murdered by his own sons.18

Shemaya and Avtalyon

Several centuries later, during the Second Temple era, some of King Sennacherib’s descendants converted to Judaism, including Shemaya and Avtalyon.19 Not much is known about their early lives, but at some point during the 1st century BCE, Shemaya became the nasi – the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, while Avtalyon became the head of the rabbinical court, a position of similar prominence.20

Shemaya and Avtalyon were beloved by the Jewish people. A contemporary describes them as, “The two great [leaders] of the generation, Shemaya and Avtalyon, who are great scholars and great expounders [of the Torah].”21

The respect the Jews had for Shemaya and Avtalyon is illustrated in a Talmudic story.22 One year, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, a crowd of well-wishers escorted the High Priest on his way out of the Temple, as was the custom. When the people saw Shemaya and Avtalyon nearby, they left the High Priest and followed Shemaya and Avtalyon.

The High Priest, clearly not the humblest person in history, took offense. When the two Sages approached him, he greeted them with, “Let the descendants of foreigners go in peace.” This allusion to Shemaya’s and Avtalyon’s descent from the enemies of the Jews was intended as an insult. However, the two Sages were not ashamed of their origins. They replied, “Let the descendants of foreigners go in peace, who performed the acts of Aaron [referring to Aaron’s reputation for peacemaking and lovingkindness], and let the descendant of Aaron [referring to the High Priest] go in peace, who does not perform the acts of Aaron.”

Nero’s descendant Rabbi Meir


Nero was the Roman emperor in 54-68 CE. The commonly accepted view is that in 68 CE, Nero committed suicide due to political pressure. Even back in those days, however, not everyone believed that Nero had died. Shortly after his presumed death, a rumor spread that he was alive. At least three impostors managed to convince some Romans that they were Emperor Nero himself.

The Talmud23 tells a different story of what happened to Nero. Suspecting Jews of planning a revolt against the Romans, Nero traveled to the Land of Israel. There, he looked for a sign from Above that would solidify for him whether or not to attack the Jews. Nero shot an arrow to the east, and it landed in Jerusalem. He then shot an arrow to the west, and it also landed in Jerusalem. The same occurred with arrows shot north and south.

Nero tried another sign. He stopped a Jewish child and asked him which verse he’d learned that day. The child replied with the verse from Ezekiel: “And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom (progenitor of Rome) by the hand of My people Israel.”24

The signs were only too clear, and Nero was afraid. “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, wishes to destroy His Temple, and He wishes to wipe His hands with me,” he said. Nero realized that if he, descendant of Edom, were to proceed with his plan to attack the Jews and destroy the Temple, although he would fulfill G‑d’s plan, he would eventually incur His vengeance. He escaped and converted to Judaism. Rabbi Meir was one of his descendants.25

Rabbi Meir

Rabbi Meir was one of the five students with whom Rabbi Akiva rebuilt Jewish scholarship after the devastating plague mentioned above.26 The Talmud attests that G‑d Himself knows that no sage of his time was equal to him.27

During times of Roman persecution, Rabbi Meir risked his life to receive his rabbinical ordination and was subsequently forced to flee the Land of Israel.28

Years later, when the persecution abated, he returned and was appointed Chacham – a high position in the Jewish Supreme Court.29 A scribe by profession, Rabbi Meir became a beloved Torah teacher, able to convey powerful messages through parables. He was known as a humble, compassionate, and holy man. Despite experiencing much hardship and tragedy, such as the sudden death of his two sons,30 Rabbi Meir remained positive, optimistic, and committed to teaching Torah. He is one of the most frequently cited scholars in the Mishna.

Rabbi Meir was married to Beruria, herself a formidable Torah scholar. Beruria’s father, Rabbi Chananya ben Teradyon, was cruelly executed by the Romans for the crime of teaching Torah. The Romans also seized Beruria’s sister and placed her in a brothel. Beruria begged her husband to rescue her sister.

Rabbi Meir bribed one of the guards at the brothel and freed his sister-in-law. When the guard asked Rabbi Meir what he should do if his superiors were to find out that he’d let a Jewish woman go, Rabbi Meir told him to bribe them in turn.

“What if the money runs out?” the guard asked.

“Then call out, ‘G‑d of Meir, answer me!’ and you will be saved,” replied Rabbi Meir.

And that’s what happened. The guard was caught and sentenced to the gallows. When he was about to be hanged, he cried out, ‘G‑d of Meir, answer me!’ The rope tore, and the guard’s life was saved.31

Since then, Rabbi Meir became known as Baal Hanes – miracle worker.

Read: What (and Who) is Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes?

In Our Times

Stories of descendants of our enemies becoming Torah teachers are not limited to ancient history. Even today, there are converts, living in Israel, whose parents or grandparents were Nazis. These converts denounced their ancestors’ antisemitism and decided to join the Jewish people and devote their lives to learning and teaching Torah.

The Torah32 teaches us to love converts. The abovementioned converts, as well as many others, made eternal contributions to Judaism, and they deserve our tremendous appreciation.