Mitzta'er (Part 1)

  • Rav Moshe Taragin



In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef ve-Yocheved, z"l),
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.




The gemara in Sukka notes a unique halakha regarding the mitzva of sitting in a Sukka. Usually, mitzva performance is mandatory even if it is inconvenient. While there is a monetary cap that limits expenditure for the sake of mitzvot, discomfort or reasonable physical exertion do not exempt a person from the performance of a mitzva. Yet the gemara (25b) excludes a mitzta'er (someone who is uncomfortable) from sukka performance. 


The gemara does not provide explicit reasoning for this unique ruling, but in all likelihood, the exemption is based on a related principle. The gemara (26b) rules that the sukka experience should approximate domestic conditions – “teishvu ke-ein taduru.” Since the Torah described the mitzva of sitting in a sukka with the verb "teishvu" (to dwell), the experience should resemble the way one normally dwells. For example, the gemara (28b) instructs moving furniture and dining utensils from the house to the sukka to recreate the home ambiance in the Sukka. Similarly, it would seem, a person who is uncomfortable is unable to experience "normal living conditions" in his sukka, and is therefore unable to properly perform the mitzva; his discomfort prevents the fulfillment of teishvu ke-ein taduru. 


The Taz (640:1-8) provides a very different rationale for the mitzta'er exemption. Unlike other mitzvot, sitting in a sukka may require a greater awareness of the symbolism of the sukka. A well known Bach (actually based upon a comment of the Shiltei Giborim in the beginning of Sukka) requires understanding the inner symbolism of the mitzva of Sukka - remembering that Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu liberated us from Egypt and sheltered us in the desert – in order to properly fulfill the mitzva. General mitzva performance DOES NOT require symbolic awareness, but sukka may be different. Even if we disagree with this minority opinion of the Bach and do not require awareness of the sukka’s symbolism, we may still require FOCUSING upon the sukka without understanding its deeper symbolism.  Discomfort may impede this focus and incapacitate the mitzva. According to the Taz, the exemption of mitzta'er may not be based on the inability to recreate a domestic environment, but rather on the fact that discomfort distracts the PERSON and prevents full performance of the mitzva. 


The most obvious difference between the first approach and that of the Taz would involve a situation in which the sukka does not cause UNIQUE discomfort. The typical image of mitzta'er is of a person suffering from the weather conditions in the sukka and whose discomfort can be ALLEVIATED by relocating to the home. What would happen if the discomfort is experienced BOTH IN THE SUKKA AND THE HOME?


This is the basis of an interesting debate between the Yere'im (mitzva 421) and the Maharik (responsa 175). The former asserts that the exemption of mitzta'er would only apply if the house provides more comfortable conditions (and, indeed, the Shulchan Arukh rules this way). If the home is just as uncomfortable as the sukka, the mitzva still applies. The Maharik, however, maintains that any "reasonable" distraction exempts one from the mitzva, even if the home would provide equal distraction. Evidently, the Yere'im assumed that the mitzta'er rule is based on teishvu ke-ein taduru and the inability to simulate the house. If the house offers tranquility and the sukka turbulence, the sukka can no longer serve as a home. If the conditions are equally uncomfortable inside one’s home, there is no reason to relocate, since the sukka, at that point, resembles a home. The Maharik, however, maintained that mitzta'er is an INDEPENDENT rule exempting one from the mitzva, perhaps because a distracted person cannot fully execute the mitzva. Even if the home is equally uncomfortable, the mitzva is hampered by the lack of focus and the person is exempt.


Interestingly, the gemara ITSELF offers a case of discomfort that would not be alleviated by relocation and appears to render it mitzta'er – as the Maharik suggests –AGAINST THE RULING OF THE SHULCHAN ARUKH.  R. Abba bar Zavda considered exempting an avel, a mourner, from the mitzva of sukka since his sadness creates a situation of mitzta'er. Ultimately, he rejects this application and instructs the avel to gain his composure and not allow the personal tragedy to interfere with the mitzva. However, the deliberation about this issue implies that an avel is INDEED considered a mitzta'er, even though relocating to his house will not alter or relieve his distress! This reflects the Maharik's position that any distress engenders mitzta'er, even if the distress exists in the home as well.


Sensing this problem, the Rosh asserts that an avel is inconvenienced in the sukka because he prefers to wallow in solitary suffering and consider his loss.  The public nature of the sukka prevents this, while the quiet of the home enables it. The Rosh agrees with the Yerei'm that mitzta'er is based on trying to "copy" the home to the sukka, and only a discrepancy in comfort level between the two would allow the exemption of mitzta'er to apply or EVEN BE CONSIDERED.  Hence, he was forced to explain why the internal suffering of an avel may have differing expression based on the environment. Ultimately, the avel is not as "comfortable" suffering in his sukka as he would feel "comfortable" suffering at home. This led the gemara to consider applying the rule of mitzta'er (but ultimately reject it). The great lengths to which the Rosh went to reveal the discrepancy between home and sukka for the avel reinforces his alignment with the Yere'im.  A simpler reading of the gemara would most likely yield a view more reflective of the Maharik - that ANY discomfort, even the type felt EQUALLY at home, would entail mitzta'er.


A second manifestation of the basis for the mitzta'er rule may emerge from an interesting question regarding the very opposite of an avel - a chatan. The gemara (25b) excludes a chatan from sukka performance, once again without supplying a reason. Simple logic suggests that his involvement in a prior mitzva exempts him from engaging in a new one – “ha-osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva.” In fact, the previous gemara (25a) had outlined the laws of this principle and it is reasonable to assume that the proximate case of the chatan’s exemption from sukka is based on this logic. As the gemara claims, "his [mitzva of] simcha demands a chupa, which cannot be constructed in the sukka.” 


Breaking with this simple approach, the Ra'avad (in his comments in Sefer Ha-Zechut) claims that a chatan would not be excluded based on prior mitzva engagement, but is rather excluded because he is a mitzta'er. The inability to construct a proper chupa in the sukka and celebrate properly creates the mitzta'er exemption. This exemption would clearly apply according to the Yere'im’s theory, since the sukka cannot provide the home option of chupa that a chatan requires. What is unclear is whether the Taz/Maharik exemption would apply. On the one hand, we may claim that his simcha prevents focus on the sukka and thus exempts him from the mitzva. The gemara, however, does not justify his exemption based on this factor, but rather focuses on his INABILITY TO CONSTRUCT a chupa in the sukka.  According to the Taz’s logic, it is not this inability BUT RATHER HIS SIMCHA that hampers the mitzva.  If we adopt the logic of the Taz, we may be forced to understand the chatan exemption based on osek be-mitzva patur min ha-mitzva and NOT BECAUSE OF MITZTA'ER.