An Early Law and Economist?

supply_demand.jpgShimeon Ben Gamaliel was a Jewish jurist (of a sort) who lived sometime around the year 50 C.E. Before tonight, the only thing I knew about him was his famous endorsement of capital punishment on deterrence grounds, sometimes quoted in law reviews:

[Jewish scholars asserted that a Court of Law] that kills [i.e., convicts on a capital crime] once a week is called “destructive.” [But a scholar then glossed:] “Once in seventy years.” [Two other even more luminary scholars objected], “If we had been on the [Court], there would never have been a person killed.” [But] R. Shimeon ben Gamaliel [replied], “They would have increased the number of spillers of blood in Israel.”

Sounds like Sunstein and Vermeule, remixed. Tonight, through my father at our interesting Seder, I heard a different story about Ben Gamaliel:

The price of a pair of pigeons [used for ritual purposes] in Jerusalem once reached a golden dinar [which was out of the reach of the poor]. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel then said: By this Temple (an oath), I shall not rest tonight until a pair of pigeons are sold for [a silver] dinar. He went into the court and taught: If a woman underwent five definite births or five definite issues, she brings only one pigeon as a sin-offering and she may then eat of the sacrifices, and no obligation devolves on her to bring the other offerings. That very day the price of a pair of pigeons stood at two quarters [of a silver dinar]

You never know which of these stories are apocrypha. But it is fun to think of this ancient jurist as an early legal economist, before Coase, Posner, Becker and others made it trendy. And best of all, he is apparently the first known jewish juggler. Altogether a fairly interesting guy!

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4 Responses

  1. Bubba says:

    Wasn’t Gamaliel the one-time mentor of Saul, AKA the Appostle Paul? Interesting to hear this about him…

  2. Brandy says:

    Yes, he was the mentor of Saul/Paul.

  3. You might be interested in this:

    I should point out that these are less stories than items from the Mishneh – Jewish “Oral” Law.

  4. scottage says:

    It’s an interesting piece. I guess I see him more as a moralist than an economist in this light. Nice post.