In presenting the commands relevant to the korban pesach and the Pesach celebration, the Torah in Parashat Bo instructs, “U-shmartem et ha-matzot” – literally, “You shall guard the matzot” (12:17). The Mekhilta comments that the word “matzot” in this verse may be read as “mitzvot,” such that the Torah here admonishes us to “guard” the mitzvot. This means, in the Mekhilta’s words, that “just as we may not allow the matza to ferment, likewise, we must not allow a mitzva to spoil; instead, if it comes your way, perform it immediately.” Rashi, in his commentary to Masekhet Megila (6b), cites this passage from the Mekhilta as the source for the famous halakhic principle of “ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot” – we may not pass over a mitzva opportunity. If we find ourselves in a position to perform a particular mitzva, we must seize the opportunity without delay.
A number of writers have addressed the question as to the relationship between this halakha and the rule of “zeriziin makdimin la-mitzvot,” requiring that we perform mitzvot at the earliest possible time. This rule is established by the Gemara in Masekhet Pesachim (4a) on the basis of the story of akeidat Yitzchak, when Avraham arose early in the morning after receiving the command to sacrifice his son, in order to fulfill his obligation as quickly as possible. Seemingly, these two halakhot are identical, as both require performing mitzvot promptly, without unnecessary delay. Why, then, are they formulated differently and derived from two different Biblical sources?
The explanation given is that these two halakhot address two different sets of circumstances. Specifically, one refers to cases of mitzva obligation, and the other to cases of mitzva opportunity. The rule of “zerizin makdimin la-mitzvot” applies in situations where one bears a specific halakhic obligation that must be fulfilled that day. For example, the Gemara there in Pesachim speaks of berit mila, which should be performed as early as possible on the infant’s eighth day. Similarly, the Shulchan Arukh (652:1) applies the rule of “zerizin makdimin” to require taking the arba minim in the morning during Sukkot, even though the mitzva can, technically speaking, be fulfilled the entire day. When a halakhic obligation takes effect, “zerizin makdimin” instructs that one should endeavor to fulfill the obligation promptly, as soon as he can, rather than delaying the mitzva unnecessarily. “Ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvot,” by contrast, applies when a mitzva opportunity arises, and requires one to seize the opportunity. Chazal speak here of “guarding” every mitzva opportunity, to ensure it does not get lost. Thus, for example, the Gemara in Masekhet Yoma (33a) writes that since the kohen in the Beit Ha-mikdash first encounters the incense altar before the menorah, he should first clean the altar in the morning before cleaning the lamps of the menorah. The moment he encounters one mitzva, he should tend to it first, before proceeding even to another mitzva. (See Rav Chaim Leib Eisenstein’s Peninim Mi-bei Midresha, Parashat Bo, and Rav Asher Weiss’ article on the topic.)
We might also point to another difference between these two halakhic principles. The rule of “zerizin makdimin la-mitzvot” is formulated in reference to our character. We are to act in a manner of zerizut, with zeal and alacrity, when it comes to mitzvot. This rule urges us to overcome our lazy, procrastinating instincts and approach our mitzva obligations with energy and vigor. The rule of “ein ma’avirin,” however, which stems from the command to “guard” the mitzvot, focuses not on our character and conduct, but rather on our perspective on mitzvot. We are to regard them as objects of value, as priceless assets that must be guarded and protected. These two principles, then, speak of the two complementary efforts that we need to make in order to be responsible, Torah-observant Jews. We need to work to overcome our lazy instincts so we can approach mitzvot with energy and zeal, and, secondly, we must constantly remind ourselves that mitzvot are the most precious commodities we have, and we must therefore cherish and treasure every mitzva opportunity that comes our way to ensure not to lose it.