Swifter or Better?

By Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Question #1: Shacharis in the Air

Rabbi Nosaya called me recently with the following shaylah:

“My flight lands at a time that I can still get to a minyan, but I am sure that there will be a minyan davening on the plane before we land. Should I daven earlier on the plane, or after we land, where I will be able to daven with more concentration?

Question #2: New Mezuzos

Dovid and Rutie are purchasing mezuzos, but really nice ones are unavailable in the small Jewish community in which they live. Should they delay their purchase until they next visit a larger community, or should they buy the nicest ones available where they live?

There is a principle of the Torah, zerizin makdimim lemitzvos, that one should perform a mitzvah as soon as the opportunity arrives. To quote the Gemara: One may perform a bris milah any time during the day, but one should try to perform the mitzvah as soon as possible (Pesachim 4a). Thus, since the earliest time to make a bris milah is at sunrise, one should perform it as soon as one can.

As a source for the law of zerizin makdimim lemitzvos, the Gemara mentions that when Avraham Avinu was commanded to bring his son Yitzchak to the Akeidah, the Torah emphasizes that Avraham got up early in the morning to fulfill his mitzvah. We also find another Biblical source in which Dovid HaMelech lauds those who perform mitzvos at the first opportunity; I hurried and did not delay to fulfill Your commandments (Tehillim 119:60).

Our enthusiasm to carry out Hashem’s commandments should manifest itself in a desire to perform mitzvos as immediately as possible. We should bear this in mind for every opportunity that presents itself, whether to perform a chesed or to fulfill one of the laws that we do not necessarily understand. As an example of zerizin makdimim lemitzvos, the Gemara requires one to check for chometz as soon as the evening of Erev Pesach begins and not wait until later that night.

Zerizus versus Hiddur

The issue that we will discuss in today’s article is whether zerizin makdimim lemitzvos is the only factor in determining when we should perform a mitzvah, or are there other considerations, such as performing the mitzvah in a preferred way. For example, let us say that early on Sukkos morning someone has a kosher esrog and other minim on which he can recite the brachah and fulfill the mitzvah, but he knows that if he waits until later that day he will have access to a much nicer esrog with which to fulfill the mitzvah. Should he wait to recite the brachah and fulfill the mitzvah until later in the day so that he can fulfill the mitzvah in a more mehudar way, or should he recite the brachah immediately because of zerizin makdimim lemitzvos? Is performing a mitzvah in a nicer way more important than fulfilling it earlier?

Early Discussions

An early authority who discusses our question is the 14th Century Terumas HaDeshen, who was asked what is the optimal time to recite the kiddush levanah prayer that men recite each month upon observing the new moon. Since Chazal mention that one should preferably perform kiddush levanah when one is in a festive mood and while wearing nice clothes (Mesechta Sofrim 20:1), should one carry out kiddush levanah on the first night that one may, or should one wait until motza’ei Shabbos so as to perform the mitzvah in a preferred way, since one will then be in good spirits because of Shabbos and will be wearing one’s Shabbos finery? Is the hiddur mitzvah of reciting kiddush levanah when one is happy and nicely dressed more important then performing the mitzvah at the first available opportunity?

The Terumas HaDeshen concludes that one should usually wait until the first motza’ei Shabbos and rallies Talmudic proofs that although observing a mitzvah with zerizus is very important, it is more valuable to perform a mitzvah in a better way. (Cf. Maaseh Rav #159, who disagrees.)

Variant Text

It is interesting to note that our text to Mesechta Sofrim states this explicitly: One should recite the blessing on the moon only on Motza’ei Shabbos when one is in good spirits and wearing nice clothes. However, it is noteworthy that aside from the Terumas HaDeshen, who obviously did not have the words only on Motza’ei Shabbos in his text of Mesechta Sofrim, I have found other Rishonim who also clearly did not have these words in their text. (See, for example, Rabbeinu Yonah at the end of Berachos Chapter 4 s.v. Naharda’ei.) It might indeed be that these three Hebrew words in our text of Mesechta Sofrim were added in error by a copyist.

However, notwithstanding the difference in text, the Rishonim all reach the same halachic conclusion – that one should wait until the first motza’ei Shabbos to perform kiddush levanah.

Better over Swifter

We therefore see that although one should strive to perform a mitzvah with zerizus, zerizus is not an absolute value: it is better to perform the mitzvah later, but in a preferred way, then to perform it earlier in a less preferred way.

Similarly, we find an early responsum that discusses the exact case I mentioned above: Someone has an esrog that is kosher, but not the nicest. He believes that if he waits until later in the day he will have a nicer esrog on which to recite the brachah. Should he perform the mitzvah now with the kosher, but not mehudar, esrog, or should he wait until later so that he can perform the mitzvah in a more exemplary way? The Shevus Yaakov, a great halachic authority of the 17th– 18th centuries, ruled that if one is certain that he will have a nicer esrog available later, he should wait, but if he is uncertain, he should recite the brachah now on the esrog that he has (Shu"t Shevus Yaakov 1:34).

Here is another case discussed by earlier authorities:

A community is planning to acquire a new sefer Torah. Should they wait until they can get a really beautiful sefer Torah, or should they acquire a sefer Torah as soon as they can, even if it is not as nice, although it is certainly kosher.

Assuming that they already own a kosher sefer Torah, they should wait to acquire the nicer one (Chida’s commentary to Sefer Chassidim #878). If they do not currently own a kosher sefer Torah, then they should acquire a kosher sefer Torah as quickly as possible without paying attention to how nice it is.

Dovid and Rutie’s Mezuzos

Dovid and Rutie’s question is almost identical to what we just asked: They are looking to purchase new mezuzos, but live somewhere where really nice ones are unavailable. Should they delay the purchase until they can find nice mezuzos to purchase?

The answer is that, assuming that their current mezuzos are kosher, they should wait to purchase new ones until they can get nice ones. (We are not discussing how much one should spend extra to purchase nicer mezuzos, which is a topic that we will leave for a different time.) However, if they are missing mezuzos that they need to put up, they should purchase them immediately, as long as they know that they are buying kosher mezuzos.

Exception to the Rule

Our general rule is that performing a mitzvah in a nicer way takes precedence over performing a mitzvah swiftly. However, there is a major exception to this rule: If delaying the mitzvah might result in missing the mitzvah altogether, then it is better to perform the mitzvah immediately in a less exemplary way. For example, what if it was cloudy on the first motza’ei Shabbos available that one could perform kiddush levanah, and then later, when one is wearing weekday clothes, one sees the moon clearly between the clouds. Should one wait to change one’s clothes before one performs kiddush levanah?

Based on their analysis of several relevant Talmudic passages (Yevamos 39a; Yoma 6b; Sanhedrin 12b), the authorities conclude that if waiting to perform the mitzvah in a mehudar way may result in a major delay, which might cause that the mitzvah not be performed at all, then one should perform the mitzvah already. For this reason, the Terumas HaDeshen, who contended that one should wait until motza’ei Shabbos to perform kiddush levanah, ruled that should the first available motza’ei Shabbos occur relatively late, one should recite the kiddush levanah earlier because of concern that if several consecutive nights are overcast one will lose the mitzvah completely.

By the same token, if delaying purchasing the new sefer Torah may result that it is not purchased at all, then one should not wait but should buy it already.

Airborne Prayers

At this point, we can answer Rabbi Nosaya’s question, which is whether he should daven on the airplane or wait until the plane lands where he will be able to daven with more kavanah. Based on our analysis, if it is certain that he will find a place where he can daven properly before the time for davening ends, then he should indeed wait to daven in the optimal way. However, if it is uncertain that he will be able to daven within the proper time, he should do so on the airplane, notwithstanding that it is very difficult to daven properly there (see Graz, Orach Chayim 94:5).

Review

Based on these points, we should prioritize our mitzvah performance in the following way:

1. Hiddur mitzvah is the first choice. When one is certain that one will be able to perform the mitzvah later in a more mehudar fashion, one should delay in order to do so. An example of this is delaying kiddush levanah until motza’ei Shabbos.

2. When delaying may result in missing the mitzvah altogether, one performs the mitzvah as soon as possible. The same is true if delaying the mitzvah for the hiddur may result in a long delay – we perform the mitzvah as soon as possible.

In Conclusion

Our entire discussion revolved around whether and when it is important to perform a mitzvah without delay or are there other mitzvah calculations that supersede that reason to perform a mitzvah early. The main point is that our attitude towards the performance of mitzvos should be one of enthusiasm – we are overjoyed with the opportunity of fulfilling Hashem’s commandments and therefore rush to perform His mitzvos as soon as we possibly can. This zeal must also sometimes be tempered with a different type of passion- the desire to perform the mitzvah in an optimal way. It is wonderful that Jews share these two enthusiastic emotions and try to seek balance between them.

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