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Respecting One's Elder Siblings

Respecting One's Elder Siblings

Parshat Yitro

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The fifth of the Ten Commandments1 expresses the imperative to honor one's parents. In the original Hebrew, the words are: Kabed et avicha v'et imecha. The Talmud2 derives from an extra letter in this verse, the vav in the word v'et, that one must also respect his elder brother.

Based on this, some say that respecting one's older brother is a Torah obligation.3 Others maintain that it is a rabbinic obligation, which merely finds support in the above verse.4

Some say that this obligation only applies while one's parents are alive.5 Others say that it applies after they are deceased as well.6 Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef rules that one should be stringent in this matter.7

The Reason

Several reasons are given for this mitzvah:

  1. Parents educate their children to respect their elder siblings, it would therefore be disrespectful to the parents to disrespect one's elder sibling.8 The firstborn is also deserving of respect because he is considered somewhat responsible for his siblings. The Midrash explains9 that this is why Reuben saved Joseph from certain death at the hands of his brothers, suggesting instead that he be thrown into a pit (while intending to come back later to save him).10 For he said to himself, "I'm the firstborn; the blame [of Joseph's death] will fall only on me."
  2. According to Torah law, the firstborn son inherits more than his other siblings.11 This because the firstborn is considered his parents' representative—and as such deserves respect.12
  3. The Arizal explains that the firstborn is a link in the chain that connects the souls of his younger siblings to his parents, and through them to G‑d. Therefore the siblings must respect him—just as they are obligated to respect their parents because they are the link that connects the person's soul to G‑d.13

Which Siblings

  • The Birkei Yosef14 says that based on the understanding of the Arizal (cited above), one must also show respect to their older sister. In fact the Midrash says15 that Rachel was punished for talking before her older sister Leah.16 In addition, the Talmud says17 that the great sage Ulla would kiss his elder sisters' hands when they would leave the synagogue, as a sign of respect.18
  • Some say that the obligation only applies to one's oldest brother (who is firstborn).19 According to the Arizal, however, this mitzvah applies to all older siblings, as each one is the spiritual pipeline for the next sibling.20 Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef rules21 that one should show respect to all his elder siblings.
  • The mitzvah applies to full or half siblings, whether paternal or maternal.22
  • This mitzvah applies even if the sibling is only a bit older. Even a younger twin must respect the older one.23
  • There is no obligation to show respect to an older sibling who is wicked.24

The Obligation

  • One should act and speak respectfully towards the older sibling.25
  • The mitzvah of "fearing" (one's parents)26 does not apply to older siblings. For this reason it is permissible for a younger sibling to call his older sibling by first name or to sit in his place (although one may not do these things towards a parent).27
FOOTNOTES
1.

Exodus 20:12.

2.

Ketubot 103a.

3.

Nachmanides, in his commentary on Maimonides' Sefer Hamitzvot, klal 2 d.h. Hashoresh Hasheini.

4.

Maimonides, Laws of Mamrim 6:15; see also Minchat Chinuch Mitzvah 33 second paragraph.

5.

Nachmanides, ibid.

6.

Implication of Maimonides, ibid. Megillat Esther on Sefer Hamitzvot, ibid.

7.

Yalkut Yosef vol. 2 on Kibbud Av Va'em 14:17.

8.

Nachmanides, ibid. This is his reasoning behind his opinion that the obligation only applies while at least one parent is alive. See Pitchei Teshuvah 18 on Yoreh De'ah 240:22 for additional discussion on this matter.

9.

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 84:15.

10.

See Genesis 37:18-22.

11.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17.

12.

Responsa Shvut Yaakov vol. 1 no. 76. This opinion would hold that the obligation is only towards a firstborn son (see below for more).

13.

Shaar Hamitzvot Parshat Yitro.

14.

Yoreh De'ah 240:17.

15.

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 74:4.

16.

See Genesis 31:14.

17.

Avodah Zarah 17a.

18.

Chikrei Lev Yoreh De'ah vol. 3 pg. 101. (See Avodah Zarah ibid. as to the permissibility of kissing sisters.)
Others (Shevut Yaakov ibid. and Yalkut Yosef ibid. 14 in the name of Rabbi Eliyahu Trab) reject these proofs, considering that the Talmud does not mention an obligation to show extra respect to an older sister. They say that Rachel was punished because, in general, one must not speak before their elders—regardless of whether they are siblings or not (Ethics 5:7); and Ulla was going beyond the letter of the law when he showed such respect to his elder sisters. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef rules that one should be stringent on this matter and respect his elder sisters (ibid. 14).

19.

Rashbam on Bava Batra 131b d.h. Peshita beno hagadol, Shevut Yakov ibid, Gilyon Maharsha 11 on Yoreh De'ah ibid.

20.

Birkei Yosef ibid.

21.

Yalkut Yosef ibid.

22.

Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De'ah 240:22.

23.

Yalkut Yosef ibid. 12. Nachmanides (on Genesis 32:5) brings support for this idea from the fact that Jacob – the younger twin – instructed the angels to address Esau – the older twin – in respectful terms ("my master"), so that he should think that Jacob still considered him the firstborn and thus deserving of respect.

24.

Code of Jewish Law, ibid. 23 from Teshuvot HaRosh klal 15:7. This as opposed to the law regarding parents, who must be respected no matter their level of piety (see Darkei Moshe 7 on Yoreh De'ah ibid.).

25.

Technically, one should rise to his feet when the older sibling enters the room. In practice, however, younger siblings don't rise for their older siblings. Since this is the prevailing custom, it is understood that older brothers willingly forgo on this honor. Nevertheless, it is Sephardic custom for younger brothers to stand when their older brothers receive aliyahs (Yalkut Yosef, ibid. 13).

26.

See Leviticus 19:3. This mitzvah includes not contradicting them and more (Yalkut Yosef ibid. from the Bais Meir Yoreh Deah 240).

27.

Ibid., and Minchat Chinuch ibid.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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