Essential Workers, Exemptions, Benefits — 5781

The talmudic passages on Sukkot obligations remain relevant for so much of 5781. Following up on yesterday’s exploration of Tractate, Sukkah, 26a, the Talmud continues: 

Mishnah: The ill and their caretakers are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah

A similar teaching—The Sages [also] taught: The ill person that they referred to is not only an ill person who is in critical condition, but even an ill person whose condition is not critical. Even one who feels pain in her eyes, and even one who feels pain in his head. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: One time I felt pain in my eyes in Caesarea, and the esteemed Rabbi Yosei permitted me and my attendant to sleep outside the sukkah [when it would otherwise be required by halakhah].

Similar story from later period: Rav permitted Rav Aḥa Bardela to sleep beneath a canopy in the sukkah (thus negating the mitzvah, as the canopy creates a barrier between the person and the actual roof) due to the biting flies [baki]. 

Another example: Rava permitted Rabbi Aḥa bar Adda to sleep outside the sukkah due to the bad smell of the earth. 

Explanation of Rava’s position: Rava to his [established] line of reasoning, as Rava said: One who is considerably uncomfortable in the sukkah is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah

Challenge: But didn’t we learn [in the Mishnah that the] ill and their caretakers are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah? (So what about caretakers for the uncomfortable?) 

Response: With regard to an ill person, yes, she is exempt; with regard to one who suffers, no, he is not exempt. 

Proof for this distinction—The Sages say: an ill person, she and her caretakers are exempt; however, with regard to one who is merely uncomfortable  in the sukkah, he himself  is exempt but his caretakers are not. 

Here’s what’s happening. In general, the same kinds of activities that happen in one’s home ought to be happening in the sukkah. Primarily, eating meals and sleeping. Our Sages also recognized that in certain circumstances this requirement places an undue burden on certain members of the community, as well as potentially negating some of the joy we are meant to feel inside of the sukkah

It is not surprising that somebody who is sick is exempt from moving themselves outdoors to fulfill the obligation of dwelling in a sukkah. It is a little bit surprising that somebody who would be considerably uncomfortable is also exempt. But what seems even more surprising is that this exemption goes beyond the individual in pain, and includes the people who are responsible for taking care of one’s ailment. 

This is what we now refer to as an essential worker. Somebody whose purpose it is to serve the critical needs of others. Quite compassionately, our legal tradition has a built-in mechanism for ensuring they not only have the needed time with which to perform their essential functions, but they are also given particular dispensations from otherwise required obligations. 

This is amplified in the Shulhan Arukh (Orakh Hayyim, 640:3), which codifies that some medieval talmudic commentators believe this exemption extends not only to the specific times that an essential worker is performing their task–but at all times–as they may be needed on a whim to immediately step back into their essential role. 

If only, today, we regarded our essential workers with this same level of dignity. If only we didn’t deem them dispensable, unworthy of our extra protection. If only those in power didn’t treat them merely as means to an egotistical end, but rather as sacred ends in and of themselves. 

If only. If only. If only. 

The news out yesterday that the United States President will halt negotiations for critical aid to struggling Americans, so many of them essential workers struggling to make ends meet while caring for us, their fellow citizens residing in a sick nation, is devastating. Furthermore, since we know this disease is negatively impacting communities of color disproportionately, the President explicitly identifying certain areas as unworthy of assistance is morally corrupt. 

If only. If only. If only.

Our tradition requires we privilege those who risk themselves for others. Our tradition demands they receive additional benefits and exemptions. Our tradition provides a model for which these need can be met systemically.

While we ought not impose our religious system on other’s decisions making, the moral thread woven through halakhah is certainly something to emulate, when possible. 

If only. 

About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Co-Senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
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