Many years ago, when the Roman empire included the Land of Israel, decrees against the Jews abounded. One such decree forbade the circumcision of Jewish boys. The punishment was severe for those who disobeyed. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was the nassi, “prince” of the Jewish people, at this time. He was known and respected by Jew and non-Jew alike, including the emperor.

When his wife had a baby boy, their desire to obey G‑d’s commandment was greater than their fear of punishment. In secret, they performed the circumcision.

Before long the Romans found out, and Rabbi Shimon was ordered to appear before the governor of his town. “What do you have to say for yourself?” asked the governor angrily.

“I have obeyed the King of kings, who has ordered us to circumcise our sons on the eighth day after birth,” answered Rabbi Shimon confidently.

“I am sending you, your wife, and the baby to the Imperial Court. For if other Jews see that you have circumcised your son and are not severely punished, then they will do the same,” roared the governor.

Rabbi Shimon and his wife set out on the long journey to the imperial court. They stopped often along the way, and were warmly received in the homes of Jews and non-Jews alike, for Rabbi Shimon was respected by all. At one home, Rabbi Shimon’s wife and the non-Jewish hostess soon realized that they had both given birth to sons on the same day. The hostess immediately offered to exchange her son, Antoninus, for Rabbi Shimon’s baby, Yehudah. Rabbi Shimon and his wife gratefully accepted the offer.

With renewed hope they continued on to the palace. Upon their arrival they were shown into the emperor’s court. The emperor, upon hearing the charges, ordered the baby examined.

To everyone’s astonishment, there were no sign that a circumcision had been performed. “It’s a miracle,” whispered the people of the court. The governor who had brought them before the emperor exclaimed, “I myself can testify to having seen that the child was circumcised, but what shall I do if their G‑d performs miracles for them all the time!” The emperor summarily rescinded the decree forbidding circumcision.

When they exchanged back their children, Antoninus’s mother said, “Since a miracle was performed through me and my son for you and your son, let us and our children remain friends forever.” Which is indeed what happened. Antoninus grew up to be the Roman emperor (some historians identify him with Marcus Aurelius, ruled 161–180); Yehudah succeeded his father Rabbi Shimon as nassi of the Jewish people, and his friendship with Antoninus provided a period of respite during which the Mishnah, the foundational text of the Oral Law, was completed. In tribute to his accomplishments, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nassi is also known to Jewish history as “Rabbi” par excellence.