In the Gittin tractate, folio 56a (focusing on the destruction of Jerusalem), it briefly mentions Nero:

"He [the Emperor] sent against them Nero the Caesar. As he was coming he shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem. He said to a certain boy: Repeat to me [the last] verse of Scripture you have learnt. He said: And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel. He said: The Holy One, blessed be He, desires to lay waste his House and to lay the blame on me. So he ran away and became a proselyte, and R. Meir was descended from him."

Does this indicate that Nero converted to Judaism since he ran away from destroying Jerusalem "and became a proselyte"? Furthermore, R. Meir is considered to be one of his star descendants.

While I recognize that this is probably fictional and folklore, why would the rabbinical scribes even insert this portion in the text? What purpose does it serve?


2 Answers 2


I came across a possible explanation as to why the rabbis would insert this brief tid bit about Nero converting to Judaism into the narrative (if it wasn't factual -- if there are sources supporting that his conversion was factual, please do list -- that would be interesting)!

In Jeffrey Rubenstein's "Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture," he dedicates an entire chapter to Gittin 55b-56b. He theorizes that not only does this passage deal with the obvious destruction of Jerusalem, but with the Rabbinic Authority. Throughout the passage, we see how the sages' inability to decide due to being too cautious leads to destruction.

Rubenstein posits that Nero's presence is to serve as a stark contrast to the sages. Like the sages, Nero displays caution by soliciting an oracle that his imperial commission to attack Jerusalem meets divine approval (the four arrows falling towards Jerusalem). He sought additional confirmation – by consulting the child and having him rehearse a scripture, which details the destruction of Jerusalem.

Nero, like the sages, faces a difficult decision (the rabbis had previously faced a difficult decision on how to react to a host treating an unwanted guest at a banquet as well as how to handle the emperor's blemished calf he personally offered). Nero acts by not destroying Jerusalem by fleeing and converting to Judaism, thereby avoiding the clutches of the emperor, demonstrating his faith in the God of Israel and siding with the ultimate victor.

It is here that Rubenstein explains this antedote: "The strange/nonhistorical account functions as an ironic foil with which to compare the behavior of the sages. When pressed to act by the emperor, they do not seek omens, or inquire of children, or turn to the text themselves. Nero – the Roman – the pagan, the goy – does... Nero’s courage produces a rabbinic authority and the proliferation of Torah; rabbinic cowardice leads to the destruction of Jerusalem."

Essentially, according to Rubenstein, the Nero scene is an ironic "slap-in-the-face" to the sages, who failed to act, because even the wicked pagan Nero knew to seek counsel from a higher being, etc.

Now this is Rubenstein's interpretation. I would be interested to know what other interpretations are out there (and if there are supporting evidences for Nero's conversion).


Flavius Josephus reports in the Wars of the Jews that Nero reigned "thirteen years and eight days" (contrary to Jerome's report). "Thirteen years" and "eight days" only occurs together in Bereishit/Genesis 17. Flavius Josephus is informing his Jewish readers (in code) that Nero's "suicide" (death of his gentile self) was by circumcision. The passages surrounding this are dealing with historical events surrounding the destruction of the Temple. They're not just telling vain faerie tales. Nero's received history is due to the sheer number of gentile voices repeating it.

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