Rainfall on Sukkot

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


The mishna in Sukka (28b) describes a scenario of rainfall that interrupts a sukka experience, stating that in this situation, “We are allowed to relocate to a home.” The gemara concludes this description with a parable to describe the exemption: When our fulfillment of the mitzva of sukka is interrupted by rain, it is similar to a servant who presents his master with a cup of wine. The master, disinterested in this gesture, tosses the wine back in the face of the servant. Rainfall during Sukkot is equivalent to Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu rejecting our “offer” of a mitzva. This shiur will explore the nature of the exemption of rainfall.

The simplest approach associates this situation with the general exemption of mitzta'er. As outlined in a previous shiur (Teishvu Ke-Ein Taduru – Fashioning a Sukka like a Residence), discomfort presumably exempts one from the sukka because the experience does not resemble teisvhu ke-ein taduru and is not as “comfortable” as a standard residential experience. Significant rainfall renders the sukka uncomfortable, and the person is classified as a mitzta'er, who is excused from the mitzva of sukka.

However, several indicators suggest that rainfall is an autonomous exemption unrelated to mitzta'er. First, the mishna makes explicit reference to rainfall even though it does not explicitly discuss any other situation of mitzta'er. The general mitzta'er exemption is inferred from a statement of Rav (see Sukka 25b) and applied to several obvious cases (see Sukka 26a about a foul smelling sukka). The fact that rainfall is uniquely mentioned in the mishna might reflect the fact that rainfall is a completely different form of exemption.

Similarly, the Rambam presents the laws of rainfall on Sukkot in a different context than the laws of mitzta'er. He opens the 6th chapter of Hilkhot Sukka with a list of those exempt from sukka, and within that section he includes various examples of mitzta'er (see halakha 2). Afterwards, he describes the “anatomy” of the mitzva – how to sit in the sukka and what conditions are necessary for fulfillment of the mitzva. He incorporates the laws of rainfall within this this second list. Evidently, he distinguished between the exemption of mitzta'er and the exemption of rainfall, and he therefore cited them as separate rules.

Finally, the mishna's parable about a Master who rejects the offering of his servant implies that rainfall exempts sukka performance in a different fashion than mitzta'er exempts from the mitzva.

Perhaps rainfall does not qualify as mitzta'er because people typically experience rain as part of their daily routine. In this sense, it is unlike classic cases of unusual discomfort. Additionally, rain affects everyone equally – as opposed to mitzt'aer, which affects certain people and exempts them from sukka, while not impacting others, who remain obligated. Since rainfall is universal, it cannot be considered mitzta'er. Instead, rainfall renders the sukka inept, since it doesn’t provide basic shelter. The very purpose of a sukka is to provide shelter, and significant rain subverts this function of the sukka. Instead of constituting an exemption (petur) from the sukka, rainfall is mafkia (eliminates) the halakhic status of the sukka.

This new model yields some very interesting nafka minot. Chief among them is the ability to exempt under conditions of rain even if ACTUAL discomfort is not experienced. The gemara suggests a shiur of minimum quantity of rain necessary to exempt from the mitzva – if enough rain falls to ruin food, one is exempt. Does this only apply to someone who is actually eating and experiences discomfort from the ruined food, or does it apply even to someone isn’t eating but who experienced the quantity of rainfall that typically would ruin food?

The Or Zarua rules that even if a person is not actively eating, he is excused when this quantity of rain exists. The Rambam's language implies this as well. Since the person is not eating, he isn’t ACTUALLY experiencing discomfort, yet rainfall excuses him from the mitzva. Evidently, rainfall can be severed from the mitzta'er principle. The Tur, in contrast, maintains that rainfall will only exempt if the person is actually eating and the rain actually spoils his food. He apparently equates rainfall with mitzta'er, and thus insists that it entail actual suffering.

A second example of the rain exemption without ACTUAL discomfort stems from an interesting comment of the Ritva, who claims that the appearance of overcast rain clouds – even before actual rain commences – is sufficient to exempt from the mitzva. The rain has not begun and discomfort is not actually experienced in the case. According to the Ritva, clouds are halakhically sufficient to legally render the situation as one of "rainfall." In this state, the sukka isn’t considered a sukka and there is no purpose sitting in it.

Perhaps this view of the status of rainfall compelled the Shulchan Arukh to disagree with the famous statement of the Rema obligating sitting in the sukka on the first night even under rainy conditions. As we discussed in a previous shiur (Is Sukka One Mitzva Made up of Separate Acts?), the Rema maintains that the mitzva to eat on the first night is an independent mitzva to eat that is imported from the chag of Pesach. It is therefore not subject to the standard rules of teishvu ke-ein taduru and the consequent exemption of mitzta'er.

Since the Shulchan Arukh does not cite this first-night exception, most commentaries maintain that he disagreed with the Rema’s view. What is the reason for his disagreement? There are two possibilities. Possibly, the Shulchan Arukh maintains that the mitzva to eat on the first night is not an autonomous mitzva imported from Pesach, but rather a reinforcement of the standard sukka-based teishvu ke-ein taduru experience. The first night mandates experiencing the sukka in a manner unlike that of the rest of Sukkot, when a person is obligated in sukka only IF he chooses to eat or sleep. Since this mitzva implements teishvu ke-ein taduru, mitzta'er conditions such as rainfall are exempt. This strategy would focus the debate between the Mechaber and the Rema around the nature of the obligation on the first night, as the earlier shiur delineated.

Alternatively, the Shulchan Arukh may agree with the Rema that the obligation on the first night is an external halakha imported from Pesach and applied to the first night of Sukkot. Indeed, a person who experiences GENERAL discomfort is NOT exempt from sukka on the first night because an independent mitzva exists. However, according to the Shulchan Arukh, rain eliminates the status of sukka and there is no continued purpose to eating in the sukka.

Additionally this view that rain eliminates the very halakhic status of a sukka may help solve a famous question of the Oneg Yom Tov. The gemara (9a) claims that sekhakh is assur be-hana'ah; a person cannot derive non-mitzva related benefit from sekhakh. Accordingly, a person should not be allowed to sit in a sukka when it rains, since he is deriving shelter during a non-mitzva experience.

There are several different answers to this thought-provoking question. Many suggest that rain completely subverts the halakhic status of the sukka, thus allowing benefit from non-mitzva functioning sekhakh. As the sukka is no longer considered a halakhic sukka, the sekhakh loses its status, and benefit is now permissible. This solution is suggested by both R. Elchanan Wasserman (Beitza, siman 70) and the Tzafnat Pa'anei'ach in his comments to the Rambam.

Finally, viewing this exemption as unrelated to mitzta'er may help explain an interesting leniency regarding rainfall. The gemara (29a) claims that if rain forces an exit from the sukka, a person can finish his meal outside the sukka even if it stops raining. Similarly, if sleep was relocated to the house because of rainfall, one does not have to relocate to the sukka once the rain has ceased; he can conclude his current sleep or nap. Presumably, these leniencies would not apply to mitz'taer. If a person exited the sukka because of a foul odor, he would have to immediately return to the sukka once the odor has passed. Evidently, rainfall is DIFFERENT from classic mitzta'er; it subverts the very identity of the sukka. Since the current sukka experience began without the presence of a halakhic sukka (because rainfall has subverted that status), it can be concluded outside the sukka even once the sukka has regained its legal status and the rain has subsided. Unlike rain, classic mitzta'er only excuses the PERSON from sitting; once his excuse is eliminated, he must resume his experience.

It is possible that this question – whether rainfall constitutes classic mitzta'er or represents an autonomous exemption – was the subject of a debate between the Amora’im. (cited in Sukka 29a). R. Yosef was very finicky and wanted to excuse himself from sukka at the early stages of a rainstorm, when the wind began to blow debris in his direction. Abaye countered that he must wait until a requisite quantity of rain falls (enough to ruin foodstuffs). Perhaps R. Yosef maintained that rain excuses a person based on mitzt'aer, which can be measured subjectively. Since he was extremely sensitive, he had already reached the level of mitzta'er and could be excused. Abaye countered that rain does not constitute mitzta'er, but is rather a separate exemption once the sukka loses its legal status. As such, R. Yosef had to wait until a sufficient quantity of rain ruined the legal status of the sukka. This assumes that the episode included rain, and not just wind and debris. As such, they were disputing whether rain could be classified as classic mitzta'er or should be viewed as an independent exemption.