Achieving Alacrity

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Achieving Alacrity

Zerizut – The Importance of Doing Mitzvot Expeditiously

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The end of the Torah portion of Balak tells the story of how Pinchas killed Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, the Midianite princess, who were sinning in a flagrant manner. “And Pinchas, the son of Aharon, the Kohen, saw, and he stood up from among the congregation, and he took a spear in his hand. He came after the Israelite man into the tent, and he pierced both of them (with the spear), the Israelite man and the woman in her abdomen. The plague then ceased from among the children of Israel.”[1]
There were several factors that could have caused Pinchas not to take action:
  • Moshe Rabeinu, Pinchas’s father Elazar, and all the other sages were doing nothing to stop this sin as the verse says, “Then an Israelite man came, and he brought a Midianite woman to his brothers in full view of Moshe and in full view of the entire congregation of the children of Israel. They were weeping at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting).”[2] The Talmud says[3] that Zimri challenged Moshe, saying, “If she (Kozbi) is forbidden, who permitted the daughter of Yitro to you?”[4]The Midrash[5] adds that Moshe and the elders lost their strength when they realized the gravity of the sin that was taking place. Having relations with gentile women just before the Jewish people entered the Holy Land can be compared to a bride committing adultery just before she is brought to the Chuppah. If such a thing happens, even her closest friends cannot defend her. To top this all off, at that moment Moshe forgot the halacha that in such a case, zealous people may kill the offender. (Hashem wanted Moshe to forget this Halacha so that Pinchas could do this mitzvah and be rewarded for it. In addition, Moshe became angry when Zimri accused him of this same sin, and being angry he was prone to making mistakes.[6]In light of Moshe’s silence and that of the elders, who was Pinchas, a relative youngster,[7] to get involved?
  • Trying to kill Zimri and Kozbi was dangerous as Zimri’s tribesmen (the tribe of Shimon) were ready to kill anyone who sought to harm their prince. In addition, the halacha is that a zealot may only kill the person while he is engaged in the sin. Had Zimri separated from Kozbi and killed Pinchas in self-defense, Zimri would not have been liable.[8]
Taking Bold Action
Despite this, Pinchas arose with alacrity[9] and successfully killed Zimri and Kozbi. What inspired him to do so? The Talmud says that the verse which says “Pinchas saw” alludes to the following:[10]
  • Some say that Pinchas remembered the verse in Proverbs,[11] “There is no knowledge nor wisdom nor counsel (in matters) opposing G-d.”[12] This means that in a situation of chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name (any sin committed in public is a chilul Hashem), one need not show deference to one’s teacher. So, even though Moshe and the sages were holding back, Pinchas took action.
  • Others say that Pinchas saw the Angel of Death beginning to inflict the people with the plague and realized there was no time to delay.
As far as the danger to his own life, Pinchas remembered the next verse in Proverbs, “A horse is prepared for the day of battle, yet salvation comes from G-d.” He reasoned that a horse goes to battle knowing that it may die, yet it is willing to sacrifice its life for its master. I too, said Pinchas, will go to battle for G-d’s sake even if it means risking my life.[13] The Midrash[14] adds that because he risked all of his 248 limbs, what saved him was a רֹמַח (romach – spear) which has the gematriyah (numerical value) of 248.
The rest of this article will discuss the quality of zerizut – acting with alacrity and enthusiasm when serving G-d.
Alacrity Brings Cleanliness
The Talmud[15] says that zehirut – caution – brings to zerizut – alacrity, which, in turn brings to nekiyut – cleanliness. Rashi explains that zehirut means that a person is careful not to sin although he is tempted to. This will help him achieve zerizut which means that he will make sure never to place himself in a situation of possible sin in the first place.[16] And that will lead to cleanliness i.e., that he will be clean of sin.
Zerizin Makdimim Lemitzvot
The Talmud says[17] that zerizin makdimin lemitzvot. Loosely translated, this means that people with enthusiasm do mitzvot promptly. This principle is derived from several sources:
  • When going to sacrifice his son Isaac (as commanded by G-d), Avraham Avinu arose early in the morning.[18]
  • Similarly, Avraham got up early in the morning to send away Hagar and his son Yishmael.[19] The reason he got up early is that he was fulfilling G-d’s command to listen to his wife Sarah and send Hagar and Yishmael away.[20]
  • The Torah says, “You should guard the matzot.”[21] The simple meaning of the verse is that, when making the matzot, one should guard them from becoming chametz. The sages understood the verse as if it said, “You should guard the mitzvot” since, in Hebrew, the word matzot and mitzvot are spelled with the same letters (מצות). Based on this, they interpreted the verse to mean, “If a mitzvah comes your way, do not allow it to become sour, i.e., do not delay its performance. Rather, carry it out immediately.”[22]
  • King David writes in Tehillim (119:60), “I was quick, and I did not delay to observe your righteous statutes.” Based on this verse, the Sefer Chassidim writes[23] that if one has a chance to do a mitzvah immediately, he should not wait until a later time when he will be able to fulfill the mitzvah in a better way. For example, if one needs a Tallit, he should not wait until he has a chance to buy a superb Tallit. Rather he should immediately buy whatever Tallit he is able to.”[24]
From the Torah, from the Rabbis, or Good Practice?
Some say that since the concept of doing mitzvot expeditiously is based on the above-mentioned Torah verses, it is considered a Torah obligation.[25] Others say that it is a Rabbinic obligation.[26] The wording of the Me’iri (Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo Me’iri 1249 – 1306 of Spain) indicates that he is of the opinion that this concept is a good practice but is not mandatory.
The Me’iri says,[27] “The entire day is fit for a brit milah. Nevertheless, it is proper for zerizin to do it earlier in the morning so that it not appear that they are delaying out of compassion for their son. Rather, they follow the ways of our forefathers about whom it says, ‘And Avraham arose early in the morning.'”
And, “How much more so, if a person has the opportunity to do a mitzvah, he should be among the zerizim who do the mitzvot early. He should not delay the mitzvah as this is the way of one who is not doing the mitzvah with the proper intention but rather like one who does it in a way of casting off the yoke (of Heaven) and out of mere rote.”[28]
It seems from the Me’iri’s language that, in his opinion, it is simply proper behavior to show that we are doing the mitzvah wholeheartedly. Concerning a brit milah, there is a specific reason to not delay it lest it seem that one is feeling sorry for his son. Although the concept of zerizut is derived from the Torah verse (regarding Avraham), the Me’iri does not hold that having alacrity is a Torah law. Perhaps this is because one cannot derive a halacha (Jewish law) based on things that occurred before the giving of the Torah. In addition, what Avraham did may have been his own righteous practice rather than an obligation for everybody.[29]
Several reasons are given for the need to perform mitzvot with alacrity:
  • It is an expression of one’s fear of G-d to perform His commandments as soon as possible.[30]
  • One who delays performing a mitzvah is treating the mitzvah with disdain.[31]
  • If one delays a mitzvah, something may occur which would make it impossible to fulfill the mitzvah.[32]
  • If a person delays a mitzvah, he may pass away before he gets a chance to do the mitzvah.[33]
Practical Application
The Pele Yo’etz (Rabbi Eliezer Papu, 1785-1828 of Bulgaria), writes,[34] “One should always worry that he may be unable to perform a mitzvah later. Therefore ‘the zerizin do mitzvot early.’ One never knows one’s time, and obstacles and the wiles of the Yetzer Hora (evil inclination) can crop up at any time. One who loves mitzvot properly will cherish them more than thousands of gold and silver (coins), and even more than the entire life of the World to Come.[35] His heart will burn like fire, and he will not rest until he fulfills the mitzvah. He even worries about a one in a thousand chance that may prevent him from fulfilling the mitzvah… Included in this concept is that if a person is going on a journey he should prepare for himself all the mitzvot that he may need to perform while on the journey even if there is only a slight possibility that he will need them. For example, a shofar, lulav, megillah, matzot, wine for Kiddush and Havdalah, a siddur and machzor, and certainly a Tallit and Tefillin. Even if he is only going on a short trip and there is only a slight possibility that he will not return on time, he should take these things with him (if they are not found in the place where he is journeying) so that they will be with him. We have seen many times that people who are zariz and take these precautions benefit from doing so. Whereas those who are lazy and do not worry about distant possibilities end up losing out. Included in this matter is walking swiftly to perform a mitzvah.
May Hashem Grant us the Ability to Perform His Mitzvot in the Right Time!

[1] Numbers, 25:7 and 8
[2] Ibid, 25:6
[3] Sanhedrin, 82a
[4] In fact, before the Torah was given, everyone had the law of a Noahide. When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, everyone converted (Rashi on ibid).
The point of Zimri’s claim was to exonerate his tribesmen from sin and save them from death. (See verse 5 where Moshe said, “Each of you, kill the men who have become attached to the Ba’al Pe’or.”) Although they had also served idols which is a capital crime, regardless of whether or not a gentile woman is forbidden, Zimri was making the following argument: The women had given them wine to drink which increased their desire for them. Then, they said, “We will not have relations with you unless you serve this idol.” Since their desire for the women was so intense, their worshipping the idol can be considered coerced. Now, if the women were forbidden, this would not be an excuse since a desire to commit a sin cannot exonerate a person from committing another sin. Whereas if the women were permissible, this can be a valid argument. In addition, although the Torah was already given and, according to the Torah, a gentile woman is forbidden, Zimri was arguing that since the Jewish people were forced to accept the Torah (see Shabbat 88a), it was not binding and they could opt out at any time (Kli Chemdah).  See there as to why this argument is flawed.
[5] Bamidbar Rabbah 20:24
[6] Targum Yonatan, see Rashi on Numbers 31:21 based on the Sifri
According to the Midrash, Moshe was punished for this temporary oversight by the fact that the exact spot of his burial site was concealed.
[7] See Siftei Chachamim on Numbers 25:13 that Pinchas was under bar mitzvah at the time of the exodus. Which would mean that he was “only” 52 years old at this time (at the most).
[8] See Sanhedrin 82b and Targum Yonatan
[9] This is the wording of (an unpublished) Midrash cited in the Torah Shleimah.
[10] Shmuel and Rav Yitzchak in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, Sanhedrin 82a. See there that Rav says that he remembered the halacha that a zealot may kill a man who is sinning in this way.
[11] Although King Solomon had not yet written the Proverbs, this concept was already known.
[12] Proverbs 21:30
[13] Shemot Rabbah 33:5
[14] Midrash Aggadah, cited in Torah Shleimah, note 56
[15] Avodah Zara 20b. See also the end of Tractate Sotah.
[16] The Tosfot Yom Tov on Sotah says that zerizut in this context means a person who is quick to perform mitzvot. As in the term “zerizin makdimin lemitzvot (see below).” A person who performs mitzvot in this manner will certainly be sure not to place himself in a situation of possible sin. See Ran on Avodah Zara ibid
[17] Pesachim 4a
[18] Genesis 22:30. See Tosfot (D.H. Shene’emar Vayashkem) on Pesachim ibid, that the Talmud is referring to the verse regarding the Akeida (binding of Isaac) and not to the verse where Avraham went to pray in the early morning after the destruction of Sedom (Gen. 19:27). As the Talmud is trying to prove that even zerizin do not need to get up before dawn to perform a mitzvah. In the case of Sedom, Avraham was traveling alone and could not leave before dawn as it would be dangerous. This may have been the reason that he left before dawn. In the case of the Akeidah, however, when he was traveling with several people, it was safe to travel before dawn and the reason he did not do so is that even zerizin need not arise before dawn to perform a mitzvah.
[19] Gen. 21:14
[20] Midrash Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Sheliemah on ibid.
[21] Exodus 12:17
[22] Mechilta on the verse
[23] Siman 878
[24] It is noteworthy that there is a lengthy discussion among various later halachic authorities (acharonim) as to whether one should delay doing a mitzvah to be able to perform it at a later time in a better way. (See Birkei Yosef, O.C. 1:7, Responsa Shevut Yaakov, O.C. 34, Magen Avraham 25:2.) The Sefer Chassidim seems to be ruling that it is not proper to do so. It is possible, however, that the Sefer Chassidim is referring to a case where, by delaying the mitzvah, one may miss it completely.
[25] Sefer HaChaim by Rav Shlomo Kluger (1785 – 1869 of Brody, Galicia) Siman 652:2 (Vol. 3, pg. 1354 in the edition printed in Jerusalem 2004) and Teshuvot HaRadach (Rav Dovid ben Chaim HaKohen of Korfu), Bayit 2, Cheder 4.
[26] Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg (1695 – 1785 of Metz, France, author of the Sha’agat Aryeh ) in Turei Aven, Rosh HaShanah, 4b D.H. VeRabanan.
[27] Yoma 28a
[28] Me’iri, Horayot 10b
[29] Rav Yosef Engel (1858 – 1920 of Cracow) in Gilyonei HaShas, Pesachim 4b D.H. Diktiv uvayom.
[30] Ramban on Gen. 17:26
[31] Ohr Zaru’a by Rav Yitzchak ben Moshe of Vienna (approx. 1200 – 1270), Hilchot Rosh HaShana, Siman 275. See also the Me’iri quoted above.
[32] Responsa of the Penei Yehoshua, Even Ha’Ezer, 15. Although the Penei Yehoshua is talking about the mitzvah of Yibum (Levirate marriage), the same logic could be extended to other mitzvot.
[33] See the responsa of the Chavot Ya’ir (by Rabbi Ya’ir Chaim Bachrach (1639 – 1702 of Moravia, Worms, Germany and Metz), Siman 9, who writes that this “may be the reason for Zerizin makdimin.”
For more on this topic see Otzar Iyunim in the Metivta Gemara on Pesach, 4a
[34] Entry Zerizut
[35] See Pirkei Avot 4:17
Wishing You all a Shabbat Shalom from the Old City of Yerushalayim!
Aryeh Citron

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