A Continued Discussion of the Mitzta'er Exemption from Sukka

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


The previous shiur discussed two different models of understanding the atypical exemption from the mitzva of sukka known as “mitzta’er.” Unlike conventional mitzvot, the mitzva of sukka can be skipped if uncomfortable conditions are involved in its performance. Is the exemption based upon the teishvu k’ein taduru principle, thus implying that if the home is significantly superior to the sukka, the latter is disqualified? Or is the actual discomfort a hindrance to the mental focus of the person that is so vital for proper mitzva performance in this case? 


In addition to the issues raised in the previous shiur, there may be additional halakhot affected by this question. One fascinating question involves discomfort that results from the SUKKA ITSELF. The gemara (26a) cites Rava, who applied the mitzta’er rule to a sukka whose floor contained foul smelling substances (gargishta). Without question, the home offered a more aromatic and comfortable experience and the smell compromised the teishvu k’ein taduru quality of the sukka. However, the smell did not DISTRACT focus from the sukka; in fact, the foul smell ironically magnified sukka awareness! If the Taz's logic of mitzta’er is correct and unfavorable weather conditions lead to the mitzta’er exemption because they prevent proper mental engagement with the sukka, perhaps the instance of a foul odor should not qualify as mitzta’er.  Might Rava have disagreed with the Taz and instead assumed that mitzta’er exempts based on the inability for a sukka to approximate a home.  The Sukka emits a foul odor but the home doesn’t; hence the Sukka is no longer considered teishvu k’ein taduru.


If Rava’s position is to be reconciled with the Taz perhaps we can argue that the sukka focus must be POSITIVE and celebratory, rather than negative attention, in which case even the Taz's version of mitzta’er would apply.


The nature of mitzta’er may have been the basis of an interesting "debate" between Abaye and his teacher, Rav Yosef. The mishna (Sukka 28b) establishes the point at which inclement weather entails mitzta’er – when the conditions ruin the food. The gemara recounts that Rav Yosef left his sukka when the wind started blowing twigs; although his food wasn’t ruined, the twigs were irritating him. Abaye questioned his teacher’s departure from the sukka; Rav Yosef could not be considered mitzta’er because the food wasn’t spoiling. Rav Yosef responded that since he was hyper-sensitive (istenis), this slight discomfort entailed halakhic mitzta’er and excused him from the sukka.  Effectively, Abaye and Rav Yosef were debating whether mitzta’er should have one objective standard (Abaye) or if it should be dependent upon each person’s “discomfort tolerance level” (Rav Yosef).


On first glance, Rav Yosef’s position seems more intuitive. Why shouldn’t mitzta’er be measured on a case-by-case basis? Why should the standard be universal, as Abaye initially asserted? (It is unclear whether Abaye ultimately accepted his rebbe's response. The Shulchan Arukh does indeed adopt Rav Yosef's view.)


Perhaps Abaye and Rav Yosef were debating the nature of the mitzta'er exemption. Rav Yosef may have agreed with the Taz's logic that discomfort hinders the actual performance of the mitzva and should be measured on a case by case basis. MOST people are distracted when their food is ruined and can no longer execute the mitzva. Rav Yosef was extremely sensitive and HIS concentration was ruined as soon as winds “slightly” increased.


By contrast, Abaye may have considered the mitzta'er exemption as based upon the teishvu k'ein taduru rule - that a sukka must resemble a home environment. Since the halakha addresses the viability of the structure and not the texture of the mitzva performance, we MAY be able to objectify which structures are "home-like" and which aren’t on a universal basis. The gemara had already issued the ruining of food as the yardstick dictating a non-home-like structure. Rav Yosef's unique sensitivities could not, in Abaye's perspective, alter the OVERALL definition of the sukka structure. The debate about establishing a universal standard for mitzta'er may have revolved around the nature of the mitzta'er exemption.


There may be an additional question surrounding the objectification of the mitzta’er issue. What would happen if the sukka were built in a way that would generally cause discomfort, but the PERSON did not experience discomfort himself? The Mordekhai rules that a sukka ceases to entail a viable sukka under mitzta’er circumstances; thus, the mitzva cannot be executed even if IN ACTUALITY no discomfort exists, for example, if typical difficult weather conditions in the area have not developed. The Rema rules this way in siman 640, where he discusses a sukka built in a hostile environment that won’t allow for relaxed dining. Under these circumstances, even sitting in a Sukka for a SHORT time is invalid, even though the threat of hostility does not disrupt or distract a short term experience. If the sukka is generally vulnerable to tza'ar, IT CANNOT BE used. 


It is unclear whether the Shulchan Arukh agrees with this understanding, but the position of the Rema remains striking. Logically, the Rema may have viewed the exemption of mitzta’er as a structural flaw in the sukka. Since it cannot be rendered as a house, the actual sukka is invalid. Once the structure has been disqualified, no mitzva can be achieved even under tranquil conditions. If we claim that mitzta’er is based purely on the inability of THE PERSON to mentally focus on the mitzva, we would probably gauge this distraction not just on a case by case personal basis, but also on a moment to moment assessment. Just because the SUKKA does not allow longer term experience without distraction does not mean that it can’t service short spurts of sukka dwelling under "focused" conditions. 


This question as to whether conditions of mitzta’er ruin the actual sukka or merely handicap the PERFORMANCE of the mitzva may underlie an interesting position of the Rema.  In siman 640,   he rules that although mitzta’er exempts a person from the mitzva, on the first night, if the weather does not clear, a minimum meal (kezayit of bread) should be consumed regardless of the distractions. The source of this surprising exception is an association between the first night of Pesach and the first night of Sukkot. Since they both occur on the 15th of the month, a gemara raises the possibility of extending halakhot from one to the other. The Rema claims that this "gezeira shava" demands eating a kezayit of bread on the first night of Sukkot, just as a kezayit of matza is consumed on the first night of Pesach “at all costs!”


Setting aside the source of this intriguing halakha, this position should clearly view mitzta’er as a non-structural flaw. If mitzta’er compromises the VERY IDENTITY of the sukka, there would be absolutely NO MEANING to sitting in a sukka under conditions of mitzta’er. Evidently, this position claims that mitzta’er affects the IDEAL PERFORMANCE of the mitzva. Typically, the mitzva requires a mental focus that mitzta’er precludes.  However, on the first night, there is a very different mitzvah, which does not require any mental focus. Since mitzta’er does not affect the status of the sukka itself, performance of the mitzva is possible even in a state of mitzta’er.