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The First Jewish Lawyer

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The study of law appears to attract a disproportionate number of Jews, perhaps because expounding arguments, pro and con, is one of the great pleasures of Talmudic discourse. In fact, one finds the first prototypical Jewish lawyer, Geviha ben Pesisa, in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a).

According to the Talmud, Geviha lived during the reign of Alexander the Great (fourth century B.C.E.). Alexander’s vast empire extended from Greece down through Egypt and eastward through Persia.

As the ruler of such a diverse population, Alexander was often confronted with disputes between subject nations. For example, a party of Africans approached him claiming that the land of Canaan actually belonged to them, as they were the descendants of Noah’s grandson Canaan. When news of this lawsuit reached Judea, Geviha offered his services: “Authorize me to go and plead against them before Alexander of Macedon: Should they defeat me, then say, ‘You have defeated but an ignorant man of us.’ If I defeat them, say to them: ‘The Law of Moses has defeated you.'”

Geviha’s winning defense was based on the fact that Canaan was cursed by Noah to be a “servant of servants” (Genesis. 9:25) and, according to the law, “any property acquired by a servant belongs to his master…” The Africans withdrew their demand.

When the Egyptians argued before Alexander that the Jews stole Egyptian gold before leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:36), Geviha argued that the Egyptians owed the Jewish people payment for the work of 600,000 men for 430 years of enslavement.

Additionally, the Ishmaelites and the Ketureans sued for possession of Canaan as the descendants of Abraham’s firstborn (Ishmael). Geviha blithely quoted Genesis 25:5-6: “Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts and sent them eastward…”

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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