Many of us—in fact, the great majority of us, certainly in Orthodox Jewish homes—grow up with an older sibling. The presence of an older brother or sister at home influences a person’s childhood experience in many ways. For some, an older sibling is a best friend, while for others he or she can be a mentor. Some will grow up in the shadow of an older sibling, while for others an older sibling will be a springboard for personal growth and success.
In the present article we will dwell on the halachic aspects of older siblings, and specifically on a person’s obligation to honor his eldest sibling. At the beginning of Parashas Vayeitzei we find Yaakov fleeing from his home in fear of his older brother’s wrath. Yet, the Ramban (Bereishis 32:5) teaches that Yaakov continued to respect Eisav, “…for it is customary for the younger brother to honor his oldest brother as his father.”
Another further reference to the honor of the oldest sibling is made by the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 74:4) in relation to Rachel and Leah. The Midrash explains that Rachel died early because she spoke ahead of her older sister (as alluded to by the wording “Rachel and Leah answered” of the Pasuk). Rachel was punished, according to Chazal, for not affording her older sister proper respect.
How does halacha treat this matter? Is the obligation to honor one’s eldest brother comparable to the obligation to honor parents? Does the obligation apply to the eldest sisters, or to brothers alone? Does it apply to all older siblings, or only to the firstborn? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Torah or Rabbinic Law
The Gemara (Kesubos 103a) tells of Rebbi’s deathbed instructions to his children. One of the instructions he gave was, “You shall be wary of the honor of your mother.” The Gemara asks why this instruction was required: Surely there is a Torah mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, rendering the instruction superfluous.
The Gemara replies that the reference was not to the children’s biological mother, but rather to Rebbi’s wife, who was not their mother. Yet, the Gemara questions that this answer is not sufficient, since the honor of a father’s wife (or mother’s husband) is included in the obligation of honoring parents by the extra word es. Finally, the Gemara concludes that the Torah instruction to honor a parent’s spouse does not apply after his or her death. Therefore, Rebbi instructed his children to honor his wife even after his passing.
Alongside the derivation of an obligation to honor a parent’s spouse, the beraisa cited by the Gemara also mentions an obligation to honor the oldest brother in the home. This is derived from the letter vav in the word ve-es, in the Pasuk, “Honor your father and (ve-es) your mother.” Because it is derived from a Pasuk, the assumption is that this halacha is a full Torah commandment.
Thus, although the Rambam (Mamrim 6:15) writes that the obligation to honor the eldest brother is midivrei sofrim, the Radvaz (in his commentary to the Rambam) states that the obligation is a Torah mitzvah. The Rambam calls it divrei sofrim on account of its non-explicit derivation. This line of reasoning is clearly stated by the Minchas Chinuch (34), and several authorities—including the Charedim (12:3), the Semak (cited by the Chayei Adam 67:23) and the Chafetz Chaim (Introduction, Asin 10)—concur that honoring the eldest brother fulfills a Torah commandment.
The Meiri (Kesubos 103a), however, writes clearly that the derivation from the verse does not imply a full Torah obligation, and the mitzvah is in fact rabbinic. It is possible that this is how the Meiri understood the opinion of the Rambam.
Yet, in view of the numerous opinions mentioned above, the obligation should certainly be treated as a Torah mitzvah.
An Independent Obligation of Honor
The Gemara noted above states that the Torah obligation to honor a parent’s spouse applies only during the parent’s lifetime. The Minchas Chinuch (34) derives from the wording of the Gemara that this restriction is limited to the parent’s spouse and does not apply to the eldest brother. Concerning a brother, the obligation remains in place even after the parent’s passing.
This halachic principle is implied by the wording of the Rambam. Concerning a parent’s spouse, the Rambam writes that person is obligated in his honor “while they [the parents] are alive.” However, concerning the eldest brother the Rambam states simply that “a person is obligated to honor his oldest brother.” This seems to imply that the honor of one’s eldest brother is an independent obligation, unrelated to the honor of parents.
The same wording is used by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 240:22), which mentions the obligation to honor one’s eldest brother without noting any qualification. Based on this understanding, it follows that even after the parents’ death (after which it can no longer be argued that the mitzvah of honoring the eldest brother is a branch of honoring parents), the mitzvah still applies.
A Derived Obligation of Honor
By contrast with the above position, the Ramban (Sefer Hamitzvos 2) maintains that the obligation to honor one’s eldest brother is comparable to the honor of a parental spouse. Just as the obligation to honor a parent’s spouse does not apply after his passing, so the obligation to honor the eldest brother does not apply after the mutual parents’ death.
According to the Ramban, the honor that one must afford a brother thus derives from the obligation of honoring the parents, who are distressed when the eldest brother is not treated with due respect. As the Talmudic derivation from the letter vav might imply, the obligatory honor is due to the parents’ honor, rather than that of the brother himself (see Pischei Teshuvah 240:18, who gives an interpretation of the dispute; see also Birkei Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 240:17).
In addition to the question of honor after a parent’s death, a further ramification of the dispute among rishonim is the question of a parent’s foregoing the honor of the eldest brother. If the obligation to honor a brother is independent of the parents’ own honor, it follows that parents cannot forego his honor. However, according to the Ramban, it is possible that parents can forego the honor of the eldest brother, because the entire obligation is on their account. The Darchei Moshe (240:6) notes this as a possibility (according to the Ramban) and leaves the question as requiring further analysis.
In practical terms, we find that the Birchei Yosef rules that the obligation to honor the eldest brother is independent of parents, in line with the Rambam. The obligation will therefore apply even after the parents’ death, and parents will not have the right to forego their oldest child’s honor.
Brother or Sister, Older or Eldest
Thus far we have generally referred to an obligation to honor the eldest brother, rather than referring to older siblings generally—that is, older brothers who are not the firstborn, and a firstborn sister. However, there is in fact something of a dispute among authorities as to whether the mitzvah of honoring the oldest brother applies even the oldest sister. Likewise, authorities dispute whether the obligation applies specifically to the eldest brother—the firstborn—or to all older brothers, even those who are not the firstborn.
Shut Shevus Yaakov (Vol. 1, no. 76) writes that the obligation applies only to the eldest child, and only to a firstborn boy. The rationale behind this ruling is that specifically the firstborn son (the bechor) must be honored, for the bechor embodies the principal continuation of a family into the next generation. The honor of a firstborn is therefore the honor of his parents (so that as noted above, the obligation can be considered derivative from the obligation to honor parents). This ruling is noted by the Pischei Teshuvah (240:19).
Other authorities, however, differ on both counts. Citing the Arizal, the Birchei Yosef writes that the mitzvah applies to all older brothers, and even to older sisters. Different from the rationale mentioned above, he supports this principle from the rationale of the Ramban, whereby honoring older siblings reflects the parents’ honor. This reasoning, according to the Birchei Yosef, applies to all older siblings.
We find in the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 17a) that Ulla (an amora) used to show his older sisters great honor, from which the Yad Shaul (240:15) derives that the obligation applies even to sisters. However, it is possible that the honor he showed was not due to the Torah obligation, but because he felt this was proper conduct.
The Birchei Yosef concludes that a person must honor all older brothers and sisters. We have already mentioned the Midrash concerning Rachel and Leah, which also indicates that older sisters must also be honored.
However, this seems to be a minority opinion. The majority of Poskim rule that the obligation is limited to the eldest brother. The wording of the Rambam (Mamrim 6:15) is that a person must honor achiv hagadol, indicating the “eldest brother.”
Calling an Older Sibling by Name
The Ikkrei Dinim (27:7) investigates whether the obligation of honoring an older brother involves kavod (honor) alone, or even mora (fear). The verse from which the obligation is derived refers to honor, though the Pasuk that instructs fear of parents also includes the letter vav, so that it is possible that even fear is included.
The practical ramification is for all the halachos of mora that the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) lists—for instance sitting in his seat, contradicting his arguments, and so on. The above-mentioned Midrash referring to Rachel’s speaking up before Leah appears to imply that the obligation applies even for mora—however, this cannot be considered a full halachic proof.
A possible proof for this question is mentioned by the Beis Meir (Yoreh De’ah 240). Shut HaRosh (Kelal 15, no. 7) discusses a case in which an older brother insulted a younger brother who was a Torah scholar and, as a result, the younger brother condemned him and placed him in cherem. The Rosh writes that this is good and appropriate because the older brother disrespected a Torah scholar, placing him outside the community of those who lead a Torah life (eino oseh maaseh amcha; see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 240:23).
Concerning a parent, the halachah is that a son cannot place his father in cherem, even if the father is fully deserving of the punishment. Why then is a younger brother different from a son? The Beis Meir explains that the honor of an older brother is limited to kavod, and does not include mora, which is why the younger brother may punish his wayward older brother.
Clearly, the common custom is to call the oldest brother by his first name, and not to follow all the laws of mora for parents. The Minchas Chinuch notes this point and suggests that Chazal differentiated between the laws of honoring a parent and the laws of honoring oldest brother. However, it is possible that the common custom indicates that the halachah follows the distinction noted above between kavod and mora: Although we are obligated to honor oldest brothers, we are not obligated to fear them.
This seems to explain much or our everyday behavior toward the oldest sibling: he is respected for his position in the family, but this respect falls short of the fear and awe that a person must feel toward his parents.
We have seen that there is a mitzvah to honor one’s eldest brother, though this is somewhat different from the mitzvah of honoring parents. In summary:
- Authorities dispute whether the mitzvah of honoring one’s eldest brother is a Torah or a rabbinic obligation.
- Some maintain that the obligation is derivative from the obligation to honor parents, and only applies in their lifetime. Other authorities maintain that the obligation is independent.
- A minority opinion maintains that the obligation applies to any older sibling, brother or sister. However, the majority opinion is that it applies only to a firstborn boy, and not to other older siblings.
- While there is a mitzvah to honor the eldest brother, it seems that this obligation only includes the positive concept of honor (kavod), and not the element of fear (mora). This is certainly the common custom.