Probably one of the most widely known halachot on Sukkot is that if it is raining, the meal is moved indoors. The source of this rule is the following Mishnah (2:9):
… If rain fell, when may he clear out [of the sukkah]? When a dish of porridge would be spoiled [by the rain]. To what can this matter be compared? To a slave who came to fill the cup for his master and [the master] poured the jug over his face.
The question that one should ask is why indeed the advent of rain exempts one from eating in the sukkah? Initially one might think that this law is an extension of another well known law – mitzta’er patur – if someone is painfully uncomfortable they are exempt from sitting in the sukkah.
The Rav ztz”l (Harerei Kedem 111) explains that such a conclusion is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, the Rambam discusses the laws of mitzta’er (6:7) in a different place to when he discusses the exemption in the event of rain (). Furthermore the Gemara that discusses mitzta’er seems to suggest that these two laws are distinct. The source of the rain exemption is stated explicitly in the Mishnah as cited above. The Gemara (28b) however, brings the law of mitzta’er as a position held by Rava (an amora from the period of the Gemara).
For this reason, the Rav ztz”l explains that the exemption of rain is different from the exemption of mitzta’er. The latter is dependant on the anguish felt by the individual in question. If he is painfully uncomfortable then he, personally, is exempt from sitting in the sukkah. The exemption of rain operates in a different manner. When it is raining, it is not dependant on subjective discomfort felt by each of the individuals but rather, the advent of rain invalidates the actual sukkah as it is no longer a suitable dwelling. This understanding explains why the Mishnah followed the law with a mashal (parable). The mashal serves to illustrate the entire situation as inappropriate from the fulfilment of the mitzvah and thus the rain invalidates the sukkah as a whole.
The Rav used this understanding to explain a particular custom that Rav Moshe Soloveitchik ztz”l had on the first night of Sukkot. By means of introduction we will ask, what if it is raining on the first night of Pesach. The Rama (639:5) rules that on the first night rain does not exempt one from eating in the sukkah and one must eat a kezait’s worth. (This is learnt from a gezeirah shava – see Mishnah Berurah for explanation.) The Mishnah Berurah however cites other opinions that hold there is no difference between the first night and the other days of Sukkot.
Now, if it was raining on the first night, Rav Moshe would eat a kezayit in the sukkah as directed by the Rama. He would then wait, even till late in the night, till the rain stopped, then wake his family so they could eat another kezayit in the sukkah to satisfy the opinions that argue against the Rama.
The Rav posed the following question, if the other opinions hold that rain exempts them from eating in the sukkah even on the first night, then surely waking the family up so late at night would qualify as a case of mitzta’er. Consequently they should be exempt in any case.
Rav Moshe responded that everyone agrees that there is no exemption of mitzta’er on the first night. The reason why those opinions exempt people from eating in the sukkah when it is raining is because when it is raining, the sukkah is no longer defined as a sukkah (“leikah alei’ha shem sukkah klal!”). There is no sukkah in which to perform the mitzvah. Later in the evening when the rain ceases, the sukkah “returns” and there is no exemption of mitzta’er explaining why the family was woken to perform the mitzvah.
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