Ein Ma’avirin al HaMitzvot – You have only one day out of jail. When should you take it? What should you do? (Pesachim 64b)

Imagine the following scenario:

In Communist Russia of 1970, Alexei Shimonovich, a teacher of Judaism and fifteen-year refusenik (“refused” permission to emigrate to Israel), was tracked by the KGB, tried and convicted for alleged subversion and espionage. He was sentenced to a thirty-year jail sentence in a high-security Soviet prison. His arrest and incarceration sparked a wave of protests by activists from the movement to release Soviet Jewry. After high-level foreign diplomats exerted pressure on the Soviet government, Shimonovich was made an extremely strange offer. He would be allowed one day out of jail a year; he could choose the day.

Shimonovich, a devoutly religious Jew, managed to smuggle out a message requesting that someone contact a leading halachic authority to instruct him which day out of the year he should choose.

If you received this message, which day of the year would you advise Alexei Shimonovich to choose and why?

Here is a list of possibilities:

  • Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year.
  • Purim – the day on which Jews worldwide celebrate the victory over Haman and the thwarting of his plot to annihilate the Jewish people.
  • Rosh Hashanah – the day that the shofar is sounded.
  • Pesach (Passover) – the holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery and oppression.
  • Simchat Torah – the joyous holiday on which the Torah is completed and begun anew, a day especially embraced by Soviet Jewry.
  • Shabbat – the weekly commemoration of God’s resting after creating the world.

As we explore the answers to these questions, we will uncover meta-principles of Jewish law – halachah – relating to the timing of mitzvot. This NLE Thinking Gemara shiur is not about making choices between good and bad, which we are perhaps more familiar with, but rather between good and good – between two mitzvah acts.

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