In One’s Grasp
‘Ein Ma’avirin Al Hamitzvos’
The Gemara presents a general principle: “ein ma’avirin al hamitzvos – we may not skip over mitzvos.” This principle applies to every area of halacha. When the opportunity to perform a mitzvah arises, a person may not pass it by even if he intends to perform it at a later time. He may not skip it to tend to his material pursuits (Pesachim 64; see Turei Even, Megillah 6b) or even to do a different mitzvah.
This principle is at work each morning when we take out our tallis and tefillin from their bag. Since it’s proper to first put on our tallis and only then our tefillin, we place our tallis closer to the bag’s opening. If the tefillin were closer, we would need to put them on first rather than reach beyond them to get our tallis so as not to violate the principle of ein ma’avirin al hamitzvos (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 25:1).
Cutting the Omer
Ein ma’avirin al hamitzvo applies even when only one mitzvah can be performed at a particular moment. One must perform this mitzvah at the first possible opportunity (Menachos 64b, see Tosefos at Megilla 6b s.v. Mistaber; Birchei Yosef O.C. 25; Magen Avraham, Orach Chayim 147 s.k. 11). For this reason (among others), when harvesting barley for the Korban Ha’Omer, we cut the barley that grew closest to Yerushalayim.
Cutting the Bottom Challah First
The Mechaber and Rema (Orach Chayim 274:1) write that on Friday night, the bottom challah should be sliced first (for kabbalistic reasons). The Bach challenges this ruling, claiming that it contradicts the principle of ein ma’avirin al hamitzvos. The top challah is closer to one’s reach and therefore should be cut first.
Many explanations have been offered to counter this claim. Below are two of them.
Draw the Bottom Challah Closer
The Taz writes that we can fulfill both the kabbalistic advantage of cutting the bottom challah and the halachic advantage of cutting the closer challah by drawing the bottom challah closer to our body.
Switching the Challos for Hamotzi
The Magen Avraham (s.k. 1) suggests that when reciting kiddush, the challah one intends to cut should be on top. Later, when it comes time to say Hamotzi, it should be on the bottom. Apparently, the Magen Avraham maintains that since the challah was originally on top, it retains its status as “the first mitzvah” even after it’s moved to the bottom.
This assumption is hotly debated among the poskim. If a person passes over a mitzvah and now is confronted with a different mitzvah, does ein ma’avirin al hamitzvos require him to go back to the first mitzvah? Or perhaps the opposite is true – since he’s now confronted with a different mitzvah, ein ma’avirin al hamitzvos would require him to tend to the second mitzvah before returning to the first.
The Turei Even follows the suggestion of the Magen Avraham that one must return to the original, skipped mitzvah. The Divrei Malkiel, however, maintains that since the second mitzvah is now before him, he should fulfill it first. The Mishnah Berurah rules in accordance with this principle in relation to a person who reaches past his tefillin to take his tallis. At that point, he should put on the tallis first, not his tefillin, even though his tefillin were originally the first mitzvah that presented itself to him (25, s.k. 5).
Switching Challos after Lifting Them
One can also explain the Magen Avraham’s ruling without assuming anything about the status of a “first mitzvah” that suddenly becomes second. When the challos are on the table, the topmost one is closer and must be cut first. But when picking them up, they may be switched without concern since neither is considered closer once they’re in one’s hands. They’re both already in one’s grasp (see Avodas Mikdash, Menachos 4b).