Sukkah: Symbol of God's Love

We often speak of the Jew’s obligation to love God. Less often stressed in halakhic discourse, however, is the inverse – that God loves us. In this article, I’d like to argue that the exemption of the ill and their caretakers from the mitzvah of Sukkah demonstrates that the Sukkah is meant to embody precisely the theme of His love for klal yisrael.

The Basis for the Exemption

The Mishnah (Sukkah 25a) rules that “cholin u-meshamsheihen peturim min ha-Sukkah,” the sick and their caregivers are exempt from the mitzvah of Sukkah. The Gemara (26a) clarifies that this leniency applies not only to one in a serious condition, but even to one experiencing mere discomfort in his eyes or head. Furthermore, the Gemara (ibid.) introduces the category of the mitzta’er, one who is exempted from the mitzvah of Sukkah due to some physical discomfort resulting from conditions in the Sukkah. Nevertheless, only the mitzta’er himself is exempted, not his caregivers.

Intriguingly, the Gemara offers no reason for these exemptions. Despite its silence on this issue, the commentators are nearly unanimous regarding the cases of the choleh and mitzta’er: both are exempted on the basis of the principle, “teshvu ke’ein taduru,” which teaches that one is only required to sit in the Sukkah in the way that one sits in his home. Just as the choleh and mitzta’er would go elsewhere if they were uncomfortable at home, so too they are not obligated to sit in the Sukkah. The exemption of meshamshei choleh, however, seems far less clear. What is the basis of this petur?

One view indicates that meshamshin are in fact a subset of the mitzta’er category. One who is paid to care for the ill is psychologically distracted by his professional responsibility toward the choleh and is therefore considered a mitzta’er (Shvut Yaakov 3:47, quoted in Sha’arei Teshuvah O.C. 640:3).

A second, more prevalent approach is to subsume meshamshin under the rubric of osek be-mitzvah patur min ha-mitzvah, “one who is involved in one mitzvah is exempted from another mitzvah.” Indeed, this interpretation is offered by a number of prominent acharonim: Levush (O.C. 640:3), Shulkhan Arukh HaRav (ibid. 640:7) and Mishnah Berurah (ibid., se’if katan 7).
Yet others (Arukh La-Ner 26a s.v. be-Gemara choleh, Arukh Ha-Shulkhan O.C. 640:3-4, Gilyonei Ha-Shas Sukkah 26a s.v. ela) offer a third interpretation: the basis for the petur meshamshin is the very same principle that exempts the choleh, namely teshvu ke’ein taduru.

A Perplexing Comment of Tosafot Ha-Rosh

In light of the above approaches to the exemption of the meshamshin, let us now consider a perplexing passage in Tosafot Ha-Rosh (ad. loc.):

Both the sick and his caretakers are exempt. Even though he is able to sleep without his caretaker, in order to give him psychological comfort they were lenient to allow the caretaker to sleep [near] him.

At first glance, Rosh’s words are astounding. The term “hikilu,” “they were lenient,” written in the plural, seems to indicate that it was the rabbis who were lenient rather than the Torah itself. This, however, is quite difficult. Our sugya addresses an exemption from a biblical commandment. It is the Torah that must exempt the meshamshin, not the rabbis! Furthermore, the term “they were lenient” implies that we are bending over backward to make the choleh as comfortable as possible. This attempt at leniency, while noble, seems misplaced. Either it is important for the patient’s needs that the meshamesh sleep nearby, in which case the caretaker should be exempted, or it is not important that the assistant be present, in which case he should be obligated. What room is there for leniency?

It seems that Tosafot Ha-Rosh is hinting at a novel and critical thesis. Let us assume for the sake of argument that Rosh follows the view that the exemption of meshamshin is based on teshvu ke’ein taduru. If so, we must determine just how expansively we are to define this category. What degree of discomfort qualifies for mitzta’er or choleh? What if some in this situation would leave their homes, while others would not? The outer limits of teshvu ke’ein taduru leave much room for interpretation.

It is perhaps to this question that Rosh addresses himself. What is the status of meshamshei choleh? Their presence next to the choleh is not crucial; it is only slightly beneficial. Do they fall under the exemption of teshvu ke’ein taduru or not? Due to this ambiguity, Rosh implies the following innovative idea: in such borderline cases, the rabbis were offered a certain degree of latitude in determining whether certain individuals are obligated or exempted. This is known as mesaruha ha-katuv la-Chachamim.

In other words, with regard to certain mitzvot, Chazal were empowered to “fill in the blanks” and determine whether or not a biblical law applies in a particular circumstance. Rosh claims that one such circumstance is meshamshei choleh. Chazal themselves decided to rule leniently and exempt the caretaker to ensure the choleh’s psychological comfort. If this reading is correct, Rosh’s comments would appear to offer a remarkable window into the rabbis’ far-reaching compassion and consideration for the needs of the sick.

This reading, however, leaves one stone unturned. After all, is it a mere coincidence that Chazal exercised this right specifically in the case of Sukkah? On the contrary, it seems likely that this leniency reflects the specific nature of the mitzvah to dwell in the Sukkah.

To better understand Rosh’s view, then, let us turn to an additional source. The medieval commentator Ritva (28b s.v. ha’ezrach) poses a simple question: Why does the Torah instruct that every “ezrach,” citizen, must sit in the Sukkah (Vayikra 23:42)? Why doesn’t the Torah invoke the more common term “ish,” “man?” He answers:

I heard in the name of our great rabbi Nachmanides, may he rest in peace, that it comes to teach us that one is not obligated in Sukkah unless he is like a refreshed citizen, which excludes travelers, guards of fruit [orchards], one who is uncomfortable, and similar cases. And whenever we invoke “teshvu ke’ein taduru” we derive it from here, for this verse reveals to us that when it says “you shall sit” it does not mean any sitting, rather [it means] sitting as one would dwell…

Ritva sets forth a foundational principle: only the “ezrach ra’anan,” one who truly enjoys his stay in the Sukkah, is obligated in this mitzvah.

Why should this be? Ritva would appear to understand that the purpose of Sukkah is not merely to recall that Hashem protected us during our journey in the desert; it is also to remember that Hashem ensured our comfort throughout that time. He not only warded off our enemies and gave us man to eat; he ensured we would be comfortable and could enjoy the taste of any food we preferred.

A passage in the midrash confirms this thesis. Shir HaShirim Rabba (4:11, quoted by Rashi Devarim 8:4) portrays the ananei ha-kavod as having cleaned and pressed the Jews’ clothing so that klal yisrael would enjoy comfortable clothing throughout their sojourn. We know that according to one prominent view (Rabbi Akiva, Sukkah 11b; Rashi Vayikra 23:42) the Sukkot in which we sit commemorate the ananei ha-kavod. This Midrash therefore confirms that the Sukkot represent not only Hashem’s protection but also His love and compassion. For this reason the midrash appears specifically in the context of Shir HaShirim.

In light of Ritva and the midrash, we may return to Tosafot Ha-Rosh. Perhaps Rosh is not merely suggesting that Chazal were lenient with regard to the meshamshin. He is claiming that unless one can be completely comfortable in the Sukkah there is no obligation, for the symbolism of the Sukkah has been lost. Therefore Chazal bent over backward to excuse the caregiver from this obligation, in order to afford “nachat ruach” for the patient.

The exemption of meshamshei cholin, then, according to Tosafot Ha-Rosh, reflects a fundamental principle concerning the Sukkah’s symbolism. Chazal insisted that we are only required to dwell in the Sukkah as an “ezrach ra’anan.” The Sukkah symbolizes not only God’s protection of the Jews in a vulnerable state but also, as an outgrowth of His love and compassion, His means of ensuring that klal yisrael’s journey would be as comfortable as possible. This Sukkot, may we successfully integrate the message of God’s love, and reciprocate that love by recommitting ourselves to loving Him.

Adapted from an article originally published in Yeshiva University’s Sukkot-to-Go, 5770.