He must be a very important person to get such an important mitzvah, I heard them say, as Mr. Loewenstein, the local assemblyman, stepped up to recite the Torah blessing before the reading of the Ten Commandments. And Mr. Kleppish was too embarrassed to tell his wife that he only got third galilah on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Chanukah.
Meanwhile, in the neighborhood shtiebel, Maftir was sold for $500 and petichah was sold for $20. Do we know which mitzvah is more important than another? Should we give priority to an “important” mitzvah over an “unimportant” mitzvah?
Thinking about the kohen performing the rituals of the daily morning sacrifice provides us with an illustrative answer. Which mitzvah was he to perform first? The distinguished task of preparing the menorah for the evening kindling, or the menial task of sweeping the altar from yesterday’s ashes? First he swept off the ashes and then he prepared the menorah. Because, explains Resh Lakish, the altar was closer to the door through which the kohen entered the sanctuary than the menorah, so that the kohen reached the altar first. “Ein maavirin al hamitzvot” – do not offend a mitzvah by postponing it, says Resh Lakish. First do the mitzvah that first comes your way.
Even if the mitzvah that first comes your way is considered by the halacha to be less holy than the second, most agree that the less holy mitzvah should be performed first. The tefillin shel rosh is holier than the tefillin shel yad because it has more letters of God’s name on it than the teffilin shel yad. Yet the tefillin shel yad is put on first.
This, explains Rashi, is because the arm is closer to the hand than to the head. For the same reason, explain the Tosafists, when replacing the tefillin back in their bag, the tefillin shel rosh should not be placed on top of the tefillin shel yad, for by doing so one would violate the rule of ein maavirim al hamitzvot. This is because the tefillin shel rosh would have to be put aside the next morning while the tefillin shel yad was being donned first, in order to comply with the sequence in which the Torah introduces them, “Bind these words as a sign on your hand and let them be an emblem in the center of your head.” Similarly, when reciting the verse “You open Your hand and satisfy the need of every human being,” the tefillin shel yad should be touched first.
The correct order for donning tallit and tefillin is tallit first and then tefillin. This order respects the rule of maalim bekodesh, ascend in the order of holiness. The rule of maalim bekodesh gives way, however, to the rule of ein maavirim al hamitzvot in the following situation: If one pulls the tefillin out of the bag before the tallit, then according to the Shulchan Aruch, tefillin should be donned first in order not to violate the rule of ein maavirim al hamitzvot. In order to avoid this conflict, the tallit should be put back in the bag on top of the tefillin. The correct order for reading the Torah on Chanukah Rosh Chodesh Tevet is first the portion of Rosh Chodesh and then the portion of Chanukah.
This order respects the rule of tadir kodem – perform first the mitzvah that occurs with higher frequency. The rule of tadir kodem gives way, however, to the rule of ein maavirim al hamitzvot in the following situation: If, according to the Taz, one mistakenly began reading the Chanukah portion first, he should, in order not to violate the rule of ein maavirim al hamitzvot, not interrupt this reading with the Rosh Chodesh reading.
The Radvaz was once asked whether a prisoner who was given a one-day furlough each year should take it at the earliest opportunity or wait for Yom Kippur. After all, on Yom Kippur one can perform more important mitzvot. Based on the precept of ein maavirim al hamitzvot, he ruled that the prisoner should take it now even though it was an ordinary weekday. The Chacham Zvi disagreed. If you can be certain, he says, that the authorities will not change their minds, it is preferable to wait for Yom Kippur.
Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Judaica bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly. Any comments to the writer are welcome at email@example.com.