January 19, 2020

Were Jews the World’s First Lawyers?

Depending on your interpretation of Biblical history, the history of the Jews goes back to Adam and Eve. Some Jewish scholars debate whether Adam and Eve were themselves Jewish, or whether only their descendants were Jewish. In any event– once accused of wrongdoing by G-d– both Adam and Eve probably could have used a good lawyer.

For those who don’t take the Old Testament literally, human history reaches back approximately 300,000 years. This is when Homo sapiens evolved from their predecessors and could be called “anatomically modern human” or “modern man.”

From Caveman to Caveman Lawyer


Lawyers are defined as people who practice or study law. Interestingly enough, the word “law” is broadly defined by Merriam-Webster.com as both: “a binding custom or practice of a community; a rule of conduct or action prescribed or formally recognized as binding or enforced by a controlling authority; the whole body of such customs, practices, or rules; and a rule or order that it is advisable or obligatory to observe” and “the revelation of the will of G-d set forth in the Old Testament” or “the first part of the Jewish scriptures.”

It thus stands to reason that the first person– the first human– to try to formulate a code of conduct or to interpret it– could loosely be called a “lawyer.” This act could have been
something as simple as two cavemen arguing over whether a tool belonged to someone
(property rights) or whether someone negligently hurt someone else with their club (personal injury). Who can forget the hilarious “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” SNL skits featuring Phil Hartman?

Evidence of the World’s First Jewish Lawyer


Alan M. Dershowitz is a now-retired American lawyer, author, scholar of United States
constitutional law and criminal law, defender of civil liberties, and Harvard Law School
professor. In late 2015, he actually published a book titled: Abraham: The World’s First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer.

In Biblical texts, Abraham is the Hebrew patriarch from whom all Jews trace their descent. It is believed that G-d commanded Abraham to follow G-d’s law, but it’s debatable exactly what laws and how many laws Abraham followed. Genesis 26:5 only says that, “…Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Some would argue that Abraham’s mere interpretation and following of the commandments from G-d might define him as a lawyer, others could argue that obedience alone to rules does not make one a lawyer.

Moses, Esquire: Attorney at Law?


Hundreds of years after Abraham in rabbinical Judaism, 613 commandments were given to Moses at biblical Mount Sinai, and seven rabbinic commandments were instituted later for a total of 620. The commandments were a mix of negative commandments (i.e “don’t do something”) and positive commandments (i.e. “you should do something.”)

Jews further believe that Moses transmitted the “Torah” from G-d. The Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible and– while Moses was historically credited with authorship of the Torah– most academics now believe the books had many authors.

It follows then that Moses was perhaps the first person to codify a mixture of commandments directly from G-d, and oral laws and customs passed down over generations.

But still, if Moses was collecting and writing laws down, does that really make him a lawyer or merely a scribe, archivist, or even–at best– a legislator?

Law: It’s All Greek To Me


If one is going to use the modern definition of what a lawyer is commonly recognized as the world’s first lawyers were not likely Jews. That is because following commands without question and writing down commandments for others to follow are not the traits of a true lawyer. Real lawyers read the law, interpret it, advocate on behalf of others, and try to persuade those in positions of power or justice that a particular law was followed or that a variance from the law should be allowed. This is good lawyering.

Most scholars would likely agree that lawyers first developed in ancient Greece. It was in Athens that orators began the tradition of oral advocacy– although not without laws in place to prevent professional legal analysis and advocacy. In his 1927 book, Lawyers and Litigants in Ancient Athens: The Genesis of the Legal Profession, author Robert J. Bonner indicated that there were rules that prevent individuals from having an actual lawyer at trial. People were expected to plead their own cases.

However, there followed a tendency to allow individuals to ask a “friend”
for an assistant. Then, around the fourth century, Athenians eliminated the prohibition on requesting a fictional friend, a person who was really an advocate. Lastly, Athenian orators were prohibited from charging a fee to plead the cause of another. This law was widely disregarded, but this meant that lawyers could not charge a fee for their services. The ban on fees was later abolished by Roman Emperor Claudius. This was the first time that professional lawyers came into existence.

Who Then Were the First Real Lawyers?


Depending on how you define the profession, lawyers could have started out as cavemen or professional advocates in the Roman empire. Attorney Michael Romano of Romano Law, P.C. has an interesting take on all this, “From my reading of history, the first lawyers were Greek, and they were pro bono public defenders.”