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Given the opportunity to do a mitzvah or to refrain from doing an aveirah - which would place you in a better situation on the scale of heaven with regards to a person's level of righteousness?

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    by doing the mitzvah isn't one doing both? You would be involved with doing the mitzvah and therefore not involved with an aveira... – Laser123 Apr 2 '17 at 1:51
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Presumably this is quite a broad and interesting question but Or Hachaim on Shemos (3:5) claims that the reason that God tells Moses to not come near to the burning bush prior to telling him to remove his shoes is because עיקר הקפדתו ומוסרו הוא על מצוות לא תעשה. Not keeping a לא תעשה actively damages whilst not doing most עשין is just missing out on some good.

It would seem that in his opinion, best to avoid the לא תעשה. See there for further details. I do not know if others disagree.

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    Except that an asei needn't be a mitzvah, and a lav needn't be avoiding an aveirah. Eg, not swearing in the name of anything but G-d is part of the Rambam's asei #7 (to swear in His Name). – Micha Berger Mar 16 '17 at 20:07
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Avot 2:1

והוי זהיר במצווה קלה כבחמורה שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצוות והוי מחשב הפסד מצווה כנגד שכרה ושכר עבירה כנגד הפסדה

Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.

(Translation via Chabad.org)

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi informs us in Avot 2:1 that we have no idea what the reward for doing a mitzvah, big or small, is. Thus, there is no way for us to know whether avoiding doing an aveirah or performing a mitzvah is greater or not. We must pursue mitzvot - and refrain from aveirot - because that is what Hashem commanded us to do.

  • +1 for good answer, and you're beating me to the same thinking :-) You may want to read Rabbeinu Yonah's comment on this Mishnah. IIIRC, he explains the apparent contradiction that there are certain mitzvoth such as Honoring your parents where the Torah DOES specify the reward. he also explains the general "reward" mentioning in beginning of parshat Ekev, among some other places. Nonetheless, if we don't know the reward, how can we categorize it into "big " and "small"? – DanF Mar 15 '17 at 17:49
  • I will look into it. I seem to remember Rabbeinu Yochanan saying something like that, and I certainly remember the Torah mentioning the reward for kibud av v'eim. I see now in the comments that Double AA mentioned the same thing - we were all thinking the same thing! – ezra Mar 15 '17 at 17:51
  • -1 The Mishna could easily be explained to mean that we don't know the reward for even the small mitzvot; not that we don't know which mitzvot are bigger than others. This fits the wording nicely, as it assumes that the reader is familiar with big mitzvot vs. small mitzvot. – mevaqesh Mar 15 '17 at 18:16
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    @mevaqesh If it meant that then we would be able to prioritize. The whole point is we can't prioritize. – Double AA Mar 15 '17 at 20:48
  • Seemingly asked as a followup hereto: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/80948 – msh210 Mar 15 '17 at 21:16
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The Ramban in Parshas Yisro (20:7) writes (translation mine):

ואמת הוא ג"כ כי מדת זכור רמזו במצות עשה, והוא היוצא ממדת האהבה והוא למדת הרחמים, כי העושה מצות אדוניו אהוב לו ואדוניו מרחם עליו, ומדת שמור במצות לא תעשה, והוא למדת הדין ויוצא ממדת היראה, כי הנשמר מעשות דבר הרע בעיני אדוניו ירא אותו, ולכן מצות עשה גדולה ממצות לא תעשה, כמו שהאהבה גדולה מהיראה, כי המקיים ועושה בגופו ובממונו רצון אדוניו הוא גדול מהנשמר מעשות הרע בעיניו, ולכך אמרו דאתי עשה ודחי לא תעשה

The truth is that the aspect of zachor refers to positive commandments, which derive from the attribute of love and belongs to the attribute of mercy, as one who performs the commands of his master loves him, and his master has mercy on him. And the aspect of shamor references negative commandments, which belongs to the attribute of judgment and derives from fear, as one who guards against doing something evil in the eyes of his master has fear of him. And therefore positive commandments are greater than negative commandments, as love (of Hashem) is greater than fear (of Hashem), as one who fulfills and does with his body and property the will of his mastre is greater than one who refrains from doing evil, and therefore they say that a positive commandment overrides a negative one.

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    @mevaqesh & Y ez: Except that an asei needn't be a mitzvah, and a lav needn't be avoiding an aveirah. Eg, not swearing in the name of anything but G-d is part of the Rambam's asei #7 (to swear in His Name). – Micha Berger Mar 16 '17 at 20:06
  • @MichaBerger You seem to be coming with a preconceived definition that "mitzvah" means "kum aseh" and "aveirah" means "shev v'al ta'aseh." I'm not agreeing or disagreeing, just not sure where you are getting that assumption from such that you feel it is a critique of my answer. If that isn't what you meant, please clarify. – Y     e     z Mar 22 '17 at 3:31
  • Also, did mevaqesh say something that I missed? – Y     e     z Mar 22 '17 at 3:32
  • I was referring to a comment he wrote in a dialog we had on another answer. – Micha Berger Mar 22 '17 at 7:33
  • The question was about "to do a mitzvah or to refrain from doing an aveirah", not asei vs lav. Refraining implies sheiv ve'al ta'aseh when an opportunity to do an aveira comes, and doing implies qum asei the mitzvah. Either can apply to either lav or asei; your answer (and Moshe Steinberg's) is about a slightly different distinction than the one being asked about. E.g. one can refrain from eating on Yom Kippur, even though that is fulfilling the mitzvas asei of "ve'inisem es nafshoseikhem". – Micha Berger Mar 22 '17 at 7:36

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