For most people, sibling relationships are – for at least some period in our lives – among the most problematic and fraught relationships we experience. If this does not apply to you, then you are unusually fortunate. I suspect, however, that the question before us of how to treat siblings arises from some sibling difficulty – difficulty that is, in fact, the norm and not the exception.
Psychologically, it is easy to understand why relationships with siblings start out being so charged. From a very early age, most small children perceive – wrongly – that there is only a finite amount of parental love, attention, and other gifts to go around. Hence, we sense ourselves to be in a competition, with our siblings as our adversaries, in getting sufficient quantities of all that we need the most. This pattern, laid down early in life, is often hard to break. All it takes is for one sibling to feel that he/she has not received his/her due in the area of parental time, affection, or presents for sibling relationships to become uncomfortable.
It is interesting to note that the halacha (Jewish law) in this area is remarkably thin. There are a few legal statements about respect for siblings in the sources, but they tend to be so general that it would be difficult to determine if somebody were actually in breach of the law. Perhaps herein lies the genius of Judaism. Jewish tradition does not legislate that which would be intolerable for large numbers of people. What would have happened if Jewish law had mandated that we must love our siblings, or provide resources to our siblings, or put our siblings interests ahead of our own? Frankly, it would have made many devoted Jews into law-breakers. The paucity of law in this area is itself a profound statement of Judaism’s deep understanding of the human condition.
The fact, however, that there is little Jewish law on siblings should not be taken to imply that Judaism has little to say on the subject. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes, the most profound teachings of our tradition are not enshrined in law. There are few areas in which this is clearer than that of sibling relationships.
After all, what is the entire first book of the Torah, Bereishit (Genesis), about if not the pain of sibling relationships? Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers – all experience deep turbulence in their relationships. If there were only one instance of sibling strife, one might tend to overlook it, but the repeating pattern makes sibling relationships one of the obvious central motifs of Bereishit.
And there are profound lessons that Judaism would have us learn from these troubled relationships, even if they are never enshrined in law. In fact the tradition seems to be affirming what we all know: much of how we conduct ourselves in the most important relationships in our lives is not governed by law, but there is a great deal that we can learn from the repeated successes and failures of those who went before us.
What pivotal lessons do we learn from Bereishit about sibling relationships? There are many insights, but let me offer a few points they seem to be key:
The first death in human history occurs when one brother (Cain) murders the other brother (Abel), due, in no small part, to a competition for Divine favor. We discover as Bereishit proceeds that – far from loving one’s sibling – having murderous intent towards one sibling is not anomalous as far as the Torah is concerned.
Critically though, after murdering Abel, Cain asks God the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper / protector / defender (shomer)?” The question is never answered, but the implicit response is plain: yes – yes, you are. Consequently, at the very least, our duty to our siblings is to protect or defend them from harm (and certainly not to be the cause of that harm). The minimum expectation of sibling relationships is that one would – insofar as it is possible – take steps to protect or defend one’s siblings from the harm that might otherwise befall them.
But there is more: Joseph has dreams of grandeur that imply that his brothers will bow down to him. He decides to share these dreams with his siblings. Naturally, these dreams are highly irritating to his brothers, and, when combined with their father’s favoritism of Joseph, lead again to fratricidal impulses. The implication seems clear: one should try to avoid acts that will be loathsome or irksome to one’s sibling. This is also the reason behind the law in Vayikra (Leviticus) that prevents a man from divorcing his wife and marrying her sister while the first wife is still alive. The Torah itself states that the effect would be “litsror aleiah,” to make life narrow and mean for the first wife (Lev. 18:18). Thus, the goal of the law is to circumvent sibling discord by foreclosing acts that are preventable and will clearly irk one’s siblings. The Torah’s message is direct: don’t be gratuitously irksome.
One last critical insight: When Joseph and his brothers become mature men, they end up reconciling in one of the most touching fraternal scenes imaginable. Prior to the reconciliation, Joseph checks carefully to see whether his brothers have really changed from when they were young men and proposed to kill him. He satisfies himself that they have truly gone through a process of transformation. Here too, there is a critical Torah teaching: if your relationship with your sibling is strained or estranged, be open to the possibility for transformation and reconciliation. You are not required to reconcile with somebody who is hostile or aggressive towards you. But there is, the Torah conveys, always the possibility for transformation, so one should never close the door entirely.
Protect your sibling from harm, do not be gratuitously irksome, stand open to reconciliation … these are just some of the valuable Torah teachings on sibling relationships. For more wisdom in this area, delve further into Bereishit…
The Talmud, Ketubot 103a, teaches that the commandment to honor one’s parents includes the obligation to respect one’s elder brother. Ramban (commentary on Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot, klal 2) maintains that this is a biblical obligation. Rambam (Maimonides, Laws of Mamrim 6:15) maintains that it is rabbinic in nature. Many authorities maintain that the obligation extends to one’s elder sister as well. This is based on the Talmudic account, Avodah Zarah 17a, of the great sage Ulla who, as a sign of respect, would kiss his elder sisters' hands when they would leave the synagogue.
Certainly demands of shalom bayit, harmonious family relations, calls for mutual respect between all siblings, and respect for parents demands that we abide by their wishes to treat our siblings properly.
Furthermore, our brothers and sisters deserve no less than would be do a friend or a stranger which is to be treated with kevod haberiyot, dignity Consider the Midrash, Tanna de-vei Eliyahu, parasha 26 teaches, “Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel, ‘My children, have I made you lack anything? What do I want of you? Only that you love each other, honor each other, and respect each other; that there be not found among you neither sin nor theft nor anything ugly; that you never become base. As it is said, “It has been told to you, O Man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you, but to do justice, and the love of mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)’.”
In truth, I am unaware of the existence of many specific laws that relate to special treatment of siblings. There is, for example, the ancient, and no longer operative, law that one must marry the widow of your brother should he die in order to preserve his family heritage. More importantly today, Jewish law requires that a sibling mourn for a lost brother or sister for a full thirty days, as one would mourn for a spouse or child. This section of the law certainly puts sibling relationships on par with other essential relationships, which our tradition holds sacred. In that regard, it is important to note that family, in general, is emphasized over and over again in the Torah and in the Talmud. Reflecting this core value, sibling relationships, which are an essential part of the family dynamic, would therefore need to be conducted with the highest degree of respect. Furthermore, respect for all of one's fellow creatures, is of critical importance in Judaism. According to Talmud Berachot, Biblical prohibitions may even be transgressed on account of this value in certain circumstances. All the more so, it would seem, should one be respectful in their conduct if the fellow creature you are addressing is your sibling – a member of your own family.
In sum, respectful treatment of every living creature is an expectation in Judaism. As family is a core value for Judaism this would be especially true in regard to siblings.
What are the Jewish laws regarding respect and treatment of one's siblings?
Family relationships are emphasized over and over again in the Torah and in the Talmud and yet there are no specific Jewish laws regarding the question of how we should treat siblings.
We then need to derive from other Jewish laws regarding this question. Jewish law requires us to always treat other people, including sibilings with respect – what is known as Kevod Haberiyot. We also have the commandment to maintain peace in the house – Shelom Bayit, and to pursue peace – Redifat Shalom, both should be considered in respect to siblings.
The Talmud, Ketubot 103a, teaches that the commandment to honor one’s parents includes the obligation to respect one’s elder brother; respect for parents demands that we abide by their wishes to treat our siblings properly and work towards harmonious family relations and mutual respect between all siblings.
On Friday nights we bless our boys with the blessing that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe. Why those two? Traditionally, the answer has been that Jacob chose to bless them because they are the first set of brothers who did not fight with each other. All the brothers who came before them in the Bible – Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers – deal with issues of sibling rivalry. By contrast, Ephraim and Menashe were friends known for their good deeds.
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