Sibling Relationships

People with siblings often experience complex and intense feelings–expectation and anxiety, joy and anger–in their interactions with sisters and brothers. How has the Jewish tradition understood that unique set of relationships?

“At all times a friend is devoted [literally, “loves”]; a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Pairing those two statements seems to be telling us that a brother is more than a friend, even if at times he may seem less close to us than a friend. The way a sibling relates to us is different, and we should appreciate the difference.Brother & Sister in Field

Supportive Relationships

A sibling may not demonstrate his or her love at all times, perhaps not ever. But in times of trouble, we often find a brother or sister at our side, prepared to comfort us or lighten our burden. The 14th century Provençal Jewish thinker Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (the “Ralbag”), explains it this way:

“One who loves [i.e., befriends] another is joined up with his beloved in good times and bad times. This is part and parcel of loving: that one does not abandon one’s beloved in time of trouble… He will rejoice when [his friend] does well and assist him when things go badly. While a brother won’t be impelled to be joined with his brother in good times, in bad times [for his brother] he will come to his aid, for he is his own flesh and blood.” 

Friends make good company, Ralbag observes, while siblings often do not. In some measure, though, siblings share a fate and a sense of mutual responsibility. This is the bedrock upon which all aspects of the sibling relationships rest.

Much of the Jewish take on sibling relationships emerges from the stories in the Bible. Speaking in the abstract, the Bible extols the deep and abiding rewards of sibling relationships. We find such sentiments in the verse cited above and in the famous opening verse of Psalm 133: “Behold! How good and pleasing it is for brothers to dwell together!” 

Biblical Sibling Relationships

When it comes to portraying specific families, though, the Bible more often paints a different picture: one of jealousy, rage, and even murder. Cain and Abel were the first siblings–and Cain killed his brother. Abraham‘s sons Ishmael and Isaac were set up to be at odds with each other, as were Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob’s dozen sons, too, were factionalized by their father’s unequal treatment. Each set was driven apart in its own unique way by parental favoritism and bungled childrearing. Genesis leaves little room for doubt about this.

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