We have learnt (2:9) that if it rains on Sukkot, one is exempt from the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah. We shall try to understand the scope and nature of this exemption.
The Rama (OC 639:5) rules that this exemption does not apply on the first night of Sukkot; one must make Kiddush and eat at least a kezayit’s worth of bread in the sukkah even if it is raining. The Mishnah Berura (35) explains that the Rama understands that the exemption of mitzta’er (feeling discomfort) does not apply on the first night of Sukkot. The obligation to eat in a Sukkot is learnt from a gezeira shava from Pesach. Just as one must eat matza on the first night of pesach, so too one must eat in a sukkah on the first night of Sukkot. The Rama aligns with those that maintain that the gezeira shava extends to equate Pesach and Sukkot further. Since one eats mitzvah regardless of comfort, the same applies with the mitzvah of sukkah on the first night.
The Mishnah Berura continues that whether the gezeira shava is extended this far is the subject of debate with others maintaining that the exemption of mitztaer applies equally throughout all of Sukkot. Consequently, while one must eat in the sukkah if it rains, out of concern for the other opinions the beracha of “leishev ba’sukkah” would not be recited. Nevertheless he adds that one should wait some time for the rain to stop and he brings a number of opinions regarding how long one should wait.
With that background we can now appreciate a story involving Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l and his father (Rav Moshe ztz”l) (Harerei Kedem 114). It was raining on the first night of sukkot and having waited, they made Kiddush, ate a small amount inside the sukkah and completed the meal inside. Rav Moshe however stayed awake and when the rain stopped, he woke his children so that they could eat a kezayit in the sukkah in order to satisfy those opinion who maintained that they earlier they were exempt; those that maintain that a mitztaer is exempt even on the first night.
The Rav objected that in any case he should be exempt -now he should be considered a mitztaer due to sleep! We see that the Shulchan Aruch(639:7) explains that if one was sleeping in the sukkah and it started to rain and he went inside, we do not bother him to return to the sukkah for the rest of the night. Indeed the Mishnah Berura (36) brings this exact logic to explain that halacha.
Rav Moshe Soleveitchik however explained the original debate, whether rain exempts on from the sukkah on the first night, in a different manner. Really, everyone agrees that the exemption of mitztaer does not apply on the first night. Those that maintain that rain exempts one from sitting in the sukkah is not because of the rule of mitztaer. Rain is very different and the exemption is because the sukkah itself. The rain means that the sukkah can no longer be defined as a dwelling, it can no longer be defined as a sukkah. In fact, the Bi’ur Ha’Gra cites the Rashba that explains, “when it rains it has no status of a sukkah.”1
The Rav adds that even our Mishnah seems to suggest that the exemption of rain is different. The mashal (parable) that is brought that the advent of rain is “like a servant that comes to pour a drink for his master and [the master] empties the jug on [the servant’s] face.” We see from the mashal that the capacity for performing the task, for performing the mitzvah, has been taken away.
That being the case, his father understood that when it was raining, the means of fulfilling the mitvah was taken away. Once the rain had stopped, since everyone agrees that there is no exemption of mitztaer everyone was obligated to wake up and eat a kezayit in the sukkah.
1 Interestingly, the Rambam discusses the exemption of mitztaer (6:2) and the exemption of rain (6:10) in two different places. Also it is noteworthy our Mishnah does not write, “If it rains, when is one exempt?” it writes, “If it rains when is one allowed to clear out [and go inside]?” According to this understanding it makes sense. Rain is not like the exemption of mitztaer that applies to the person. Instead the sukkah is no longer and the question is when is a person left without a sukkah
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