Rabbi Judah was a great sage, a wealthy man, and the leader of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. He was admired and respected by everyone. But when Rabbi Judah was a little baby, he came very close to being killed. This is how it happened.
Rabbi Judah was born not long after Rabbi Akiba was put to death for teaching the Torah. The Romans were angry with the Jews because they had revolted against Roman rule, so the government decreed that it be forbidden to teach the Torah or to circumcise newborns.
When Rabbi Judah was born his mother and father decided to defy the Roman decree and circumcise him as the Torah commands. When the mayor of the city heard what had happened he summoned Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel and asked him why he had violated the Emperor’s decree by circumcising his son.
Rabban Simeon replied that he was not anti Roman, but commandments from God come first. The mayor said that while he had great respect for Rabban Simeon as the head of the Jews he could not allow a Roman decree to be violated. “I will send the baby with his mother Aviva bat Malkah to the governor’s palace and the Governor will do what he wishes”
“You could just look the other way and save my son’s life” said Rabban Simeon. “I don’t want to take a chance of getting in trouble with Romans,” said the mayor, “I just follow orders. You are the one who disobeyed.”
The mayor arrested Rabban Simeon and put him in prison. The next day the mayor took the baby as evidence, along with its mother Aviva bat Malkah, to the governor’s palace in Cesarea.
They traveled all day. In the evening the mayor ordered everyone to stop for the night at an inn owned by a non-Jewish man named Antoninus. While she was at the inn Rabbi Judah’s mother Aviva bat Malkah began talking to the innkeeper’s daughter, relating to her the great danger that she and her son faced. Now it happened that the daughter of Antoninus the innkeeper had also recently given birth to a boy and it turned out that both babies were born on the exact same day.
Although the innkeeper’s daughter was not Jewish she was very upset that a Jewish mother and her baby were in danger because of the Roman decree. “I must do something,” she thought, “I cannot stand by and do nothing when somebody else is in danger.”
She thought of an idea. She would exchange her baby for Rabbi Judah. They were both the same size. The mayor and the Roman guards would never notice the switch. When Rabbi Judah’s mother Aviva bat Malkah showed the baby to the governor there would be no evidence of a circumcision. On her way back from the governor’s palace they would switch babies again and everything would be all right.
Aviva bat Malkah agreed and they switched babies. When the Governor examined the baby the next day he found no evidence of circumcision. He fired the mayor and sent Aviva bat Malkah and her baby away in peace.
When the two returned to the inn of Antoninus Aviva bat Malkah blessed the non-Jewish woman who had saved her child. Antoninus’s daughter replied, “Since God had wrought a miracle for you through me, and for your son through my son, let us and our sons be friends forever.”
And so it was. The non-Jewish woman’s son was named Marcus Aurelius. Many years later when Rabbi Judah had become a great sage and the leader of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus became the emperor of Rome. (161-180 c.e.)
(Rabbi Allen S. Maller, adapted from Tosafot on Avodah Zarah 10b)