And Hashem prepared a big fish to ingest Yonah and Yonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (2:1).
We are about to encounter and engage some of the most profound teachings in Yonah. Unfortunately, before we do so, we must spend some time discussing how the fish swallowed Yonah and whether and how this is possible. Ask most people about the book of Yonah and it is likely that you will hear “Oh, Yonah and the whale.” It is deplorable that this minor detail has become the most well-known feature of the book of Yonah. Unfortunately, it requires a comment. Though for us it is but a distraction from the primary goal of uncovering the book’s message, it remains a stumbling block to many serious students of Yonah , who find themselves unable to advance because of this apparently fantastic incident. It would, therefore, be a disservice to bypass this topic without comment.
Is it possible for a person to survive within a fish for three days? If not, was it a miracle; if so, why does it not say so in the book itself?
A number of attempts have been made to reconcile Yonah’s prolonged stay within the fish with cetacean anatomy and physiology. One plausible explanation invokes the large and flexible pharynx of sperm whales which not infrequently have been known to swallow huge octopuses whole. The large air-filled stomachs of sperm whales may enable a human to access to sufficient air to breath for some time. Others point to the large air-sacs of certain species that can accommodate a person in relative comfort. In 1891, there was a widely circulated report of a sailor swallowed by a sperm whale and cut out from its belly alive on the following day by his shipmates. As is well-known, no story remains unquestioned and no proof survives unopposed. The story was subsequently denied by the wife of that boat’s captain in a 1905 publication, and so, the true facts will never be fully known.
Many classical commentators maintain that it was a miracle or a series of miracles (See Ibn Ezra, Radak, Malbim). Others lessen the disruption of natural law by pointing out that this was a special fish, “a great fish” by the testimony of the verse, prepared specifically for this purpose at creation (See Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer CH. 10). The miracle may have been relatively minor, consisting merely in widening the belly of a fish to enable it to comfortably contain a person (Yalkut 550).
Is it possible that being swallowed by a fish was only a prophetic vision but that it did not actually happen? Although there are isolated references to those who maintained such a view, we must reject it on the basis of the widespread consensus among early and older sources that treat it as real event. These include Mishna Taanit 2:4 (He who answered Yonah from the belly of the fish, He shall answer us), apocryphal books of Tobias (14:4) and Maccabees (6:8), Josephus (Antiquities 9,10,2) and numerous commentators, early and late. Granted, Joseph Ibn Kaspi in his commentary to Yonah 2:11 somewhat disapprovingly cites such an opinion, as does Maimonides quoting “some of the Andulasians” in Guide 1:42. One must, however, keep in mind that such a view derives not from a disbelief in the possibility of miracles, as in our day and time, but from an Aristotelean based insistence that the Perfect Creator created perfect rules of nature and that He would not allow them to be easily violated. There is also an attempt by the Ephodi, a rather controversial philosopher and commentator (known as Profiat Duran after his forcible conversion to Cristianity which he ultimately renounced) in his commentary to the Guide 3:32 to read this view into Maimonides himself; however, Abarbanel in his commentary to the same passage quite convincingly disproves this conjecture. (Those who wish to explore this topic more fully can consult the introduction to the JPS edition of Yonah with the commentary of Uri Simon; Shlomo Aviner, Perush on Sefer Yonah, p. 64; and A. Rivlin, Yonah: Nevua V’Tochacha, p. 43-57.)
It is true that the Vilna Gaon and the Zohar read the book of Yonah as an allegory that describes the soul’s descent into this world and its sojourn in it. There is no indication, however, that they disputed the literal sense of the story. Unlike the story of Job, which one Talmudic opinion in Bava Basra 17 considers a parable, no such precedent exists for the book of Yonah. Those who propose such an interpretation of Yonah walk, in my opinion, too close to the line that divides Jewish interpretative tradition from those beyond it.
In summary, we will follow the traditional approach that sees the fish that swallowed Yonah as a miracle. This miracle may have been set ready from Creation or may have consisted in a relatively minor expansion of natural boundaries, explaining why it was not worthy of being noted in the narrative itself. The weight of precedent and consensus, as well as the testimony of early sources, leads us to reject attempts to read the incident of the fish swallowing Yonah as a prophetic vision. Rather, we should treat it a real event and interpret accordingly.
With the question of “how could it have happened” out of the way, we now stand ready to embrace the real lessons of the fish and Yonah’s sojourn within it.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Meir Levin and Torah.org.