Only a plebeian sits in a sukkah in the rain
Are all exemptions from the mitzvah of sukka equal?
The mishna in Sukka rules that there are several exemptions from the mitzvah of sukka – women, slaves, and children are exempt as are the sick and their caregivers. Insubstantial eating or snacking is also exempt and there’s a blanket exemption when it’s raining. But it is only regarding the latter that the mishna adds: “It’s like a servant that comes to pour a cup for his master and he spills a pitcher on his face.”
The mishna also describes sages who acted stringently, careful to eat even insubstantial snacks in the sukka. Indeed Rambam and Shulkhan Arukh rule that people who stringently ensure that all their eating and drinking is done in the sukka are blessed.
Yet when it comes to sitting in the sukka when it’s raining the attitude changes. Rema rules that on the first night of the festival there’s an obligation to eat in the sukka even if it’s raining. On every other day he states: “Anyone who is exempt from sukka and does not leave it does not receive reward for it and is nothing but a plebeian.” Rema’s statement is based on a teaching of Rabbeinu Simcha cited by Hagahot Ashiri and Hagahot Maimoniyot, who states that someone who is suffering is exempt from sukka, and if they stay there anyway they are considered a plebeian.
The principle – that someone who performs a mitzvah when they are exempt is a plebeian – appears twice in the Jerusalem Talmud, albeit the contexts are different. The mishna in Shabbat states that one should not begin a meal half an hour before it is time for tefilla (prayers, the amida); if one has already started their meal they must pause to say Kriyat Shema in the proper time, but they don’t need to do so for tefilla. The Yerushalmi teaches that one of the sages interrupted his meal to say the amida and others remarked that: “anyone who is exempt from something and does it is called a plebeian.” In response the former quoted the mishna that rules that a groom is exempt from Kriyat Shema on his wedding night, but if he wants to say it he may.
Curiously, Shulkhan Arukh and Rema do not mention the idea that someone who observes a mitzvah when exempt is a plebeian regarding pausing a meal for tefilla or a groom saying Kriyat Shema on his wedding night. (Shulkhan Arukh rules that the groom’s exemption is no longer relevant because nowadays people do not have proper kavana – intention and concentration.) And yet Rema does mention this regarding sitting in a sukka when it’s raining.
Why is it that specifically someone who observes sukka when exempt is called a plebeian?
Why is it that this idea is only applied to a few very specific circumstances? There are many other cases – like eating snacks in the sukka – when someone who is stringent to observe the mitzvah even though they are exempt is considered praiseworthy. Which attitude applies to women who fulfill positive time bound mitzvot even when they are exempt?
Over the centuries several halakhic authorities have turned their attention to the subject. It seems that Ohr Zarua thought that in certain situations we’re concerned that someone who observes a mitzvah when exempt displays yuhara – hubris, like a groom who determines he is able to concentrate on Kriyat Shema even when others are not. The same could be said about someone who chooses to stay in the sukka when it is clearly uncomfortable; it’s as if this person is saying they are better than others.
Some say that since women are exempt from tzitzit (fringes on a four-cornered garment) they should not fulfill the mitzvah as it may be seen as yuhara. Yet others maintain that one who is exempt and observes is only called a plebeian when there is a universal exemption and no one is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah in such circumstances. Therefore, it would not apply to women and tzitzit, since only women are exempt. But when it rains everyone is exempt from sukka and there is no reason to fulfill the mitzvah. Similarly, Ramban says that outside of Israel there’s no mitzvah of shemitat kesafim – cancelation of debt at the end of a shemita year – so there’s nothing to fulfill or observe.
An alternative approach is that one is only considered a plebeian if their “stringency” in one area means they are “lenient” in another. A person who stays in the sukka when they are exempt because they are suffering is using the sukka unnecessarily, and this diminishes its sanctity; they’re also infringing on their observance of another mitzvah – rejoicing in the festival.
Bikurei Yaakov seems to agree with this approach, but specifically in the context of sukka. The mishna emphasizes the idea of a servant rebuffed by his master with the powerful image of attempting to fill his master’s cup and spilling a pitcher in his face. In this case the master clearly and sharply expresses that the act is unwanted. Only a plebeian would stubbornly insist on doing something they are told not to do. This is not the stringency of a pious person who wants to distance themselves from sin, or a woman who wants to embrace mitzvot even if she is exempt, to get closer to her Creator. No, this is insisting on doing something unwanted.
Consequently, it makes sense that Rema did not bring this principle in the context of a groom reciting Kriyat Shema or someone pausing their meal to pray, or even someone who is exempt from sukka due to personal suffering. It only applies when a person is exempt from sukka because of rain. It seems that this is not due to a common belief that people who are exempt from a mitzvah and do it anyway are plebeians, but his general approach to the mitzvah of sukka, which is not only an obligation but also a privilege that must be earned.
 Mishna Sukka Chapter 2 Mishna 4-5, 8-9
 ibid Mishna 9
 Mishna Sukka 2;5; Rambam Hilkhot Shofar v’Sukka v’Lulav 6:6; Shulkhan Arukh OC 639:6.
 Rema on Shulkhan Arukh OC 639:5 (the obligation on the first night) and 7 (concerning the other days of the festival).
 Hagahot Ashiri Sukka 2:12; Hagahot Maimoniyot on Rambam Hilkhot Shofar v’Sukka v’Lulav 6:3:3.
 Mishna Shabbat 1:2.
 TY Berakhot 2:9; TY Shabbat 1:2.
 Mishna Berakhot 2:5 and 8. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel disputed this statement, but his father Rabban Gamliel said Kriyat Shema on his wedding night so as not to abstain from accepting the yoke of Heaven.
 Shulkhan Arukh OC 235:2-3.
 Hilkhot Tefillin 543.
 Rema on Shulkhan Arukh 17:2.
 Ramban on Kiddushin 31a and Gittin 36a.
 See Bikurei Yaakov on Shulkhan Arukh OC 639:38; Responsa Be’er Sheva 21.