Rabi Yehudah Hanasi (the prince) known as Rebbe had an amazingly warm friendship with the Roman Caesar, Antoninus. The friendship began at the birth of the two men and continued until their dying days.
Rebbe was born as the land of Judea lay beneath the heavy Roman heel. The Roman government, furious at the stubbornness of the Jewish people, passed severe decrees against them. One of these decrees concerned the vital mitzvah of milah (circumcision).
The Jews were horrified to learn that the Romans had decreed that any Jew who circumcised his child would be put to death and were in turmoil. How could one not fulfill the mitzvah that was the symbol of the covenant between the Almighty and His people? On the other hand, who had the courage to risk death by defying the decree?
Rabi Shimon Ben Gamliel, descendant of the great Hillel and head of the Sanhedrin, was blessed by G-d just at that time with a son. Great was the rejoicing but equally great was the trepidation.
But Rabi Shimon never hesitated. He took his eight-day old son and performed the ritual that brought him into the covenant of Avraham Avinu.
The Romans Hear
The Roman governor soon learned of Rabi Shimon’s actions. He was furious.
“Bring Rabi Shimon before me immediately,” he said.
Rabi Shimon was brought to the palace and before the angry governor.
“What have you done? Why have you defied the orders of the Roman Caesar and circumcised your son?”
Rabbi Shimon looked at the governor and replied: “I have obeyed the orders of a greater king than the Roman Caesar. I have obeyed the decree of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, who is Sovereign of the universe.”
“I realize that you are the leader of the Jewish people and I respect you as a great man” the governor said, “but duty compels me to take you into custody for having broken the Roman law. You, your wife and the newborn child will go under guard to Rome and Caesar himself will decide your fate.”
On To Rome
The trip took many days and when they reached Italy they stopped at a hotel before proceeding on to Rome. The Empress was also staying at the same hotel for the Al-Mighty had decreed that she should give birth about the same time.
The wife of Rabi Shimon, as the leader of the Jews, had met the Empress before and they had become good friends.
“What are you doing here?” the Empress asked in surprise.
Rabi Shimon’s wife burst into tears and poured forth the entire story,
“Because we circumcised our son, Caesar, your husband, will probably condemn us all to death.”
The Roman Empress listened in horror to the tale that had just unfolded and she rose to her feet, “Never! This will never happen!”
“I am afraid it will,” said Rabi Shimon’s wife, sadly, “There is nothing that we can do. We defied the law of tyranny and now we shall be punished for it.”
“No, perhaps not.” said the Empress, as her face brightened,
“What do you mean?”
“I have an idea which just might work if you are willing to try it out.”
“I will do anything if the life of my son will be spared.”
“Very well,” said the Empress. “I have just given birth to a son also. He is not circumcised. Let us exchange babies temporarily and when you show the baby to the king he will see that the child is uncircumcised and will let you all go free.”
The Jewish mother listened to the plan and agreed to try it out.
“Perhaps if the Almighty wishes it, the plan will work and we will be saved.”
In the greatest secrecy the two women gathered up their infants and exchanged them. The uncircumcised Roman baby, heir to the Roman kingdom was given to the wife of the Jewish leader and little Yehuda, destined to be one of the giants of Torah, was handed over to the Roman Empress.
Before The Emperor
The next morning the party proceeded on its journey and was taken to the palace to see the Emperor.
“I have heard that you have defied the decree of the Empire and circumcised your child,” the Emperor said. “You realize, of course, that you are liable for the death penalty for treason.”