A question addressed in today’s daf (Ketubot 85b) concerns the way in which decisions are made when someone dies having instructed on their deathbed that ‘Toviah’ should be the beneficiary of their property – but not having specified which ‘Toviah’ they are referring to.
In the specific case being discussed, this individual has a close friend and neighbour called ‘Toviah’ who spends much time with them, while their estranged sibling – with whom they have no contact whatsoever – is also called ‘Toviah’. Given this situation, the question asked is which ‘Toviah’ should be the beneficiary? The Gemara answers by quoting Mishlei 27:10 which states: טוֹב שָׁכֵן קָרוֹב מֵאָח רָחוֹק – “better is a close neighbour than a distant sibling”, meaning that the close friend should be given the property.
Interestingly, this is not the only biblical verse which emphasizes this specific point, as Mishlei 18:24 also states how וְיֵשׁ אֹהֵב דָּבֵק מֵאָח – “there are friends with who we are bonded even closer than a sibling”. Moreover, as Rabbi Yaakov Schechter points out (in his commentary to Mishlei 27:10), this concept is also given further practical application elsewhere (see Gemara Bava Metziah 108a) where a close friend is given priority over a distant relative.
Perhaps, on first glance, this message seems somehow ‘wrong’ – because surely family should always come first. However, as Rabbi Schechter notes, “life experience taught [Shlomo HaMelech] that the emotional bond that exists amongst close friends is [oftentimes] greater than the bond that exists between siblings who share a parent”.
Of course, it would be nice for strains not to exist in families. However, while family can be a great source of comfort and joy, it can also be a great source of strain and stress, and especially around the time of Jewish festivals or family celebrations, these strains and stresses can rise to the surface.
Undoubtedly, an optimum time to build these bridges and mend these relationships are the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and this is something that, wherever possible, we should strive to do. At the same time, as Sefer Mishlei teaches and as we see in our daf, many of us often feel much closer to certain friends than to certain family members, and while the reasons for this will differ from case to case, this does not negate the truth of this fact.
Overall, we should strive as best we can to have great family relationships. But we should also recognize that friendship is a precious thing, and we should treasure our friends who – oftentimes – are closer to us than our siblings.