Tefillin or Shabbos?

Q. I have to go in for surgery. If I go on Friday, I'll miss Shabbat, but if I go on Tuesday, I'll miss Tefillin. I asked if I could be in the hospital over Shabbat, but my rabbi said that, all things being equal, it's better to have the surgery during the week.

I thought Tefillin is the greatest mitzvah, as listed in the Shema. I want to do Tefillin as much as possible. Please explain why my rabbi said being in the hospital on Shabbat is less preferred.

A. Thanks for your question. Of course, tefillin is important – all the mitzvos are important! – but we don't happen to know the relative importance of mitzvos. The mishna in Pirkei Avos (2:1) tells us to be as careful in what we perceive to be “small” mitzvos as we are in what we think are “big” mitzvos specifically because we don’t know the relative importance of mitzvos.

Everyone has a favorite mitzvah, whether it's avoiding lashon hara, going to the mikvah, or - as in your case - tefillin. And this is a good thing because we need some people to be passionate about checking for shaatnez and other people to be passionate about taking challah!

But Shabbos is in a category by itself. Shabbos is the defining mitzvah of observant Jews. A person who doesn't keep Shabbos is unfit to serve as a witness. If a Jew who doesn't keep Shabbos handles wine, he renders it non-kosher. There are two entire Talmudic tractates about Shabbos (as opposed to zero about tefillin). There's a famous saying that more than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews.

If nothing else, putting on tefillin is a positive mitzvah, while keeping Shabbos is both a positive mitzvah and a negative mitzvah. Given the choice to be in the hospital over Shabbos or to miss a day of tefillin, I agree with your rabbi. Try to avoid being in the hospital over Shabbos whenever possible.

Good luck with your surgery!

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