An article I wrote some years ago for Yeshivat Darche Noam:

“Mitz’ta’er”: A Definition
The Talmud in Tractate Sukkah 25a cites the Amora, Rav, as declaring that a mourner is fully obligated in all of the mitzvot of the Torah (with the exception of one, based on a special verse.) Next, Rav states that a mourner must dwell in the Sukkah during the Festival of Sukkot. This second halacha prompts the Gemara to exclaim: “That’s obvious!” In other words – after Rav’s initial statement – obligating a mourner in all the mitzvot – why would we have thought that he would be exempt from the mitzvah of Sukkah?

Had Rav not stated this second halacha, answers the Gemara, we may have actually thought that a mourner is exempt from Sukkah. Why? A fundamental principle in Hilchot Sukkah is that one who is suffering from being in the Sukkah – a “mitz’ta’er” – is exempt from the mitzvah; we may have thus thought that a mourner, in his grief, falls into this category. According to the Gemara, Rav’s special stress on the mourner’s obligation to dwell in the Sukkah clarifies that the exemption of mitz’ta’er only applies to suffering that develops ” on its own”. The discomfort of the mourner in the Sukkah does not develop “on its own”; rather, the mourner, says the Gemara, “is bringing the suffering on himself, and he therefore has the obligation to place his mind at ease and calm down [to allow himself to live in the Sukkah.]”

Rashi explains that suffering that “develops on its own” relates to discomfort stemming from the Sukkah itself. Typical examples include: discomfort from the heat of the sun beating down on the Sukkah, the cold temperature in the Sukkah, or a bad odor emitted by the structure’s leafy “schach” roof. Since a mourner’s sensitivity is not directly related to the Sukkah’s temperature or odor, he must put himself at ease so that he can perform the mitzvah.

Why should a mourner find the Sukkah so difficult to tolerate? Rabbeinu Asher (“Rosh”) explains that such a person prefers the dark, secluded atmosphere of a house rather than the pleasant-open air atmosphere of the Sukkah. Far from being objectively unpleasant – the Sukkah is “too pleasant” an environment for the mourner! In other words, it’s the mourner’s delicate and unique emotional state that transforms the Sukkah into a troubling place.

Comparing Sukkah to Tefilin
Sukkah is not the only mitzvah in which the halacha stresses the mental/emotional situation of the Jew. The Gemara in Menachot (36b) rules that a person donning Tefilin must not take his mind off the mitzvah, and proves this by learning a “Kal V’chomer” from the requirement of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) to mentally focus on his “Tzitz” headdress. Rambam codifies this ruling in his Mishna Torah, stating that a person in discomfort, or one whose mind is not at ease, is exempt from the mitzvah of Tefilin – since it is forbidden to become distracted from the Tefilin while donning them.

In response to the above halacha, Rabbeinu Manoach (cited by Kesef Mishna) states: Even though with all other mitzvot, we require a person to put his mind at ease and perform the mitzvah, Tefilin are different: it’s forbidden to wear them while mentally distracted. Kesef Mishna understands this comment as an implicit challenge on the Rambam: How can Rambam exempt a “mitz’ta’er” from Tefilin, if, after all, the Gemara in Sukkah states that such a person must calm down with the aim of fulfilling the mitzvah of Sukkah?!

To this challenge, Rabbeinu Manoach responds: The mitzvah of Tefilin is different: Since it is characterized by a special “distraction” prohibition, we don’t insist that he put his mind at ease. Why? As much as he calms himself down, he won’t escape the fact that there is a special prohibition of being distracted while donning Tefilin.

In other words, we cannot simply say in the case of Tefilin: “Let him calm down and perform the mitzvah.” Once a Jew has become preoccupied and distracted, the halacha is wary of permitting him to don the Tefilin ; the very real possibility exists that he will again lose his concentration. No such halachic prohibition – and therefore no such cautious approach – exists in the law of Sukkah.

A Second Approach
Another prominent scholar – R. Joel Sirkes in his work “Bayit Chadash” (Bach) – also grapples with the apparent contradiction in the halacha. In contrast to Rabbeinu Manoach’s approach, Bach understands the person in Rambam’s Tefilin scenario as being in a different mental state than the one in the Sukkah scenario: Rambam, notes Bach, is dealing with a person who is simply unable to put his mind at ease. Even if he succeeds at doing so for a moment, he quickly reverts to being a “mitz’ta’er”. He therefore never escapes the status of someone who is distracted and therefore exempt from Tefilin. In contrast, the “mitz’ta’er” of the Gemara in Sukkah is someone – whom – with sufficient effort, can calm down.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Responsa “Tzitz Eliezer”) notes that according to Bach – were the person in Rambam’s Tefilin scenario to ask whether he is obligated in Sukkah – we would tell him that he is not. This would be our answer to him, despite the fact that his discomfort does not stem from the heat of the Sukkah, nor the odor emitted by the schach.

At first glance, Bach’s approach seems to contradict the Gemara Sukkah (27a): “You must dwell in Sukkot for seven days” says the Torah. Given the principle that we must treat the Sukkah like our home for a week, we need only live in it as long as the it allows us similar conditions we are accustomed to in our homes. Since we would not live in a house that has a leaky roof, or an apartment that is uncomfortably cold – we are not expected to live in a Sukkah under cold or rainy conditions. A person whose discomfort stems mainly from his own mental or emotional state, and not from the Sukkah, however, is not exempt from the mitzvah to dwell in the Sukkah. (The Gemara quoted earlier, as explained by Rashi reinforces this.) How could Bach, then, suggest that a person unable to put his mind at ease – is exempt from both Tefilin and Sukkah? It is not the Sukkah, but his own mental state, that is standing in the way!

Tying it All Together
In order to understand Bach’s ruling, Rabbi Waldenberg notes that the question of what exempts a “mitz’ta’er” from Sukkah is a major disagreement between the Rishonim. Rashi, Rosh, and Mordechai all rule that a person is exempt from Sukkah only when the discomfort stems from the Sukkah itself. This is the view accepted by Remah in the Shulchan Aruch. The Maharik, in contrast, states that a “mitz’ta’er” is exempt from Sukkah even if the discomfort is mainly a product of his emotional state. Maharik cites our Gemara Sukkah (25a) – and notes that it was prepared to exempt the mourner as a “mitz’ta’er” – but required him instead to put his mind at ease and dwell in the Sukkah.

In other words, Maharik reads that Gemara differently than we suggested earlier: That “sugyah” did not intend to definitively rule out a mourner’s state of mind as a relevant factor in defining “mitz’ta’er”: It simply concluded that when the discomfort derives from the Sukkah itself, there’s not much the halacha can demand of the Jew: if the Sukkah is too hot or wet, then the conditions do not allow for the mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah to be fulfilled. If however, the mourner’s state of mind is the issue, the halacha asks him to try to “get a hold of himself” before availing himself of the exemption of “mitz’ta’er.” It follows, therefore, that both Maharik and Bach – confronted with a person who is unable to relax, would rule that that he is exempt from Sukkah in the same way as such a person is exempt from – and even forbidden to wear – Tefilin.

Rabbi Waldenberg suggests that underlying the contrasting approaches towards the Gemara – are two contrasting views of the source of the exemption of “mitz’ta’er”. The mainstream view – Rashi, Rosh, Mordechai, Remah – understands the verse “You must dwell in Sukkot for seven days” as the basis of the exemption; we must treat the Sukkah like our home for a week, we need only live in the Sukkah as long as it allows us similar conditions as a regular home. As noted earlier, one whose discomfort stems mainly from his own mental or emotional state, and not from the Sukkah, is not exempt from the mitzvah to dwell in the Sukkah.

The opposing view – that of Bach and Maharik – bases itself on the verse in Vayikra Chapter 23, which states that we must dwell in Sukkot “So that your generations [after you] know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot when I took them out of the Land of Egypt.” This, says Bach explicitly – indicates that the Torah wants us to experience a special religious/historical awareness while dwelling in the Sukkah. A severe “mitz’ta’er” simply cannot attain this consciousness, and is therefore exempt. It’s irrelevant, according to this view, whether the unsettled state of mind is a result of the heat of the Sukkah, etc, or a personal state of anxiety not rooted in the Sukkah. This explanation helps explain, as well, why Bach equated between the two issues of Sukkah and of Tefilin. In Shmot Ch. 13, the Torah states that we must wear Tefilin “so that the Torah of God should remain on your lips.” Here, as in the mitzvah of Sukkah, a special awareness is required while performing the mitzvah. It is this special state of mind that exempts the “mitz’ta’er.”