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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:


In last week’s shiur, I suggested that, unlike every other occasion of the reading of the Haftarah, the reading of Sefer Yonah at Minchah on Yom haKippurim is the motivation behind the Torah reading at that juncture. Every other time that the Haftarah is read, it is a by-product of the public reading of the Torah, either echoing the content of the selection just read or presenting an additional perspective to the holiday or season at hand. In this case, however, the connection between the Torah reading and Yom Kippur is so tenuous as to suggest that it is simply an “added reading” (taken from the very next selection in the Torah – see the sources cited in last week’s shiur), facilitated in order to allow for the public reading of Yonah.

This left us with a challenge – identifying the message of the Sefer which is, evidently, so relevant to the afternoon of Yom Kippur that it motivates us to “create” an extra public reading of the Torah.

In part I, I shared several views as to the “message” of Sefer Yonah; to wit, assessing the apparent dispute between Yonah and God which drove the prophet to attempt the impossible – to flee from God’s Presence.

One well-known view is nationalistic: Yonah was concerned for either (or both) the spiritual reputation or the political weal of the Israelite kingdom. It was not failure that frightened him, rather success. If he was successful in convincing the Ninevites to abandon their evil ways, it would both make the B’nei Yisra’el look spiritual wanting (as they were not heeding the calls of the prophets, including Yonah himself) and would avert God’s decree to destroy our mortal enemy, the Assyrians.

Another view is theological: Yonah was a man of perfect truth and justice and did not have room in his world-view for the possibility of change – for Teshuvah.

The arguments against both of these approaches were presented at the end of last week’s essay. I would like to propose an understanding of the dispute – and the story, which will both answer the “macro” questions we raised last week and explain the relevance of this story to the afternoon of Yom haKippurim.




Before moving on, I would like to share a beautiful “take” on the story which, although it does not answer all of our questions, has much to recommend it and is very apt for this season of introspection and return.

Mr. Ralph Tawil, who is one of the contributors to the engaging and stimulating on-line “Judaic Seminar” list, suggests that the lesson of Sefer Yonah did not relate to the Ninevites and their plight at all. It is God’s relationship with Yonah which serves as an important model for us, both in our understanding of the Sefer and as a powerful message during this season of Teshuvah.

Tawil suggests that: “God’s compassionate nature takes a specific form in this work; that of the tolerant, patient but persistent educator. This is seen primarily through God’s relationship with Yonah.” He goes on to point out that God cares enough about Yonah’s education and growth that He sends a storm, a fish, a castor-oil plant and a worm – all for the purposes of teaching this one man – who certainly is obstinate throughout most (if not all) of the story. Tawil titles this behavior “Care enough to teach – and teach again”.

Again, although this approach is instructive and helps us navigate our way through much of the story, it leaves a few gaps in the story, as per our questions from last week.

Before presenting an answer, here is a recap of the questions we raised on the story itself:

1) What is Yonah’s dispute with God?

2) Why does he think that he can flee from God?

3) How can we understand his behavior on the ship?

4) How can we explain the content of his “prayer” in the belly of the fish?

5) Why do the Ninevites include their animals in the fast?

6) What causes God to forgive them – their behavior or His compassion?

7) Who are the people who “do not know their right hand from their left”?

8) From what “evil” is the Kikayon (castor oil) plant meant to save Yonah? (4:6)

Dr. David Hentschke of Bar-Ilan University, in a recent article (Megadim 29, pp. 75-90), highlighted several difficulties in the text and suggested an underlying theologico-psychological issue as the basis for Yonah’s reticence to go to Nineveh. It is that issue which will be the springboard for our approach, much of which is based on the textual analysis proposed by Hentschke.





As pointed out ahove, one of the startling things about the narrative is the description of Yonah’s behavior on the boat – both his self-imposed seclusion during the height of the storm and his later interaction with the sailors. Here’s what the text tells us:

But Hashem sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship seemed likely to break up. Then the sailors were afraid, and cried each one to his own god, and they threw the wares that were in the ship to the sea, to lighten it for them. But Yonah had gone down into the interior of the ship; and had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the ship’s captain came to him, and said to him, What do you mean, O sleeper? Arise! Call upon your God! Perhaps God will give a thought to us, that we do not perish. And they said to one another, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Yonah. Then they said to him, Tell us, we beg you, for whose cause is this evil upon us? What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you? And he said to them, I am an Ivri; and I fear Hashem, the God of heaven, who has made the sea and the dry land. Then the men were very afraid, and said to him, Why have you done this? For the men knew that he had fled from the presence of Hashem, because he had told them. Then they said to him, What shall we do to you, that the sea may calm down for us? For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. And he said to them, Take me up, and throw me into the sea; then the sea will calm down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great tempest is upon you. Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring it back to land; but they could not; for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. And they cried to Hashem, and said, We pray you, O Hashem, we pray you, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood; for you, O Hashem, have done as it pleased you. So they took Yonah up, and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared Hashem exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to Hashem, and made vows. (1:4-16)

Note how Yonah’s response to the storm is the very opposite of that of the sailors – and the opposite of what we would expect from a prophet. He is indifferent to the entire matter (indicated by his sleeping) and refuses to call out to God for help – either for himself or for his fellow travelers. What is the reason for this indifference?

Note how piously the sailors are presented here. Not only do they pray fervently, but when their lots fall upon Yonah, they do everything to keep from acting on this find. Instead of accusing him, they inquire as to his origins, his nation, his profession – and then ask his advice!

When the only choice left is for these sailors to throw Yonah overboard, they pray fervently, begging God’s understanding for their behavior. What fault, if any, could be found in their behavior?

There are two keys to understanding the sailors’ relationship with God. Once we understand these, we will better appreciate why this piece of Yonah’s saga is included in the narrative.

First of all, note the motivation for their prayer:

Perhaps God will give a thought to us, that we do not perish.

In other words, the sailors prayed for physical salvation – that was what motivated their call to their own gods.

Their prayers are simply part of the mechanics of salvation. First they cry out to their gods, then they throw their vessels overboard – all part of a survival strategy.

Second of all, the chapter ends with the sailors bringing offerings and making vows (apparently meaning vows to bring more offerings – that is what the word Neder generally means in T’nakh). We never hear about the sailors after this point – and we have no idea what became of their sudden conversion/revelation on the boat.

Indeed, some of the commentators (see, Radak and S’forno at 2:9) maintain that the sailors neglected their vows once they reached dry land. In other words, the powerful experience of the boat was soon forgotten, along with the commitments they had made as a result.

Before analyzing Yonah’s interaction with the sailors, let’s assess the behavior of the second group with which Yonah interacts – the Ninevites.


The Sefer describes the Ninevites reaction to Yonah as follows:

And Yonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to the word of Hashem. And Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in extent.And Yonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Another forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. And the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. And word came to the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he took off his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying: Neither man, beast, herd or flock should taste anything! They should not feed nor drink water! And let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God may yet turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we perish not? And God saw their doings, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, which he had said that he would do to them; and he did not do it. (3:3-10)

The behavior of the Ninevites is no less bizzare than that of the sailors. Why do they suddenly believe in God? Why does the king command that everyone must participate in the fast and prayer – including (most oddly), the animals? (We will yet return to this point).

What spurs the Ninevites to prayer?

Who can tell if God may yet turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?

The phrase – v’lo No’veid (Let us not perish) used here, is the same one we heard from the sailors. The Ninevites pray mightily, are driven to a Teshuvah which becomes paradigmatic (see M. Ta’anit 2:1) – by a fear for their lives, just as the sailors did.

Incidentally, if we compare the Ninevites motivation for prayer:

Who can tell if God may yet turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?

with a seemingly parallel phrase in Sefer Yo’el:

Who knows if he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him; a meal offering and a drink offering to Hashem your God?

We can see the significant difference between the Ninevites’ (and sailors’) prayer and that which we would consider upright: The Ninevites and sailors pray so that they may save their skin; we pray so that we may live to have a further opportunity to serve God.

Nonetheless, both the prayers of the sailors and the prayers of the people of Nineveh were accepted and both communities were saved.

There is one more parallel between the Ninevites and the sailors – at least on an interpretive level.

In the final chapter, Yonah distances himself from the city to see what will happen:

And Yonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there he made himself a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he should see what would become of the city.

Some of the commentators (e.g. S’forno at 4:5) note that he went to observe Nineveh not to see how they would fare – but if they would maintain their newfound righteousness. Just as we saw in reference to the sailors – whose piety only lasted the duration of the storm, Yonah’s concern was that the Ninevites would return to their sinful ways once the decree was annulled.


We have seen that both groups with which Yonah interacted were quick to believe in God and to pray to Him when under threat of annihilation – yet their adherence to this piety is, at best, left unclear in the text. (We know enough about Nineveh to conclude that it didn’t last long – see the prophecy of Nahum ha-Elkoshi, specifically 3:1). Prayer was a tactic of survival, operating at the most elemental level, equating all forms of life – mature, young and even animals.

The prayers and Teshuvah of the Ninevites were not motivated by an understanding that their lives were corrupt and held no future; they were not driven by a desire to grow spiritually and to bring succor and stability to their society; they were certainly not impelled by a fear of Heaven and a desire to do God’s will. The fundamental motivations of Teshuvah as we understand them were totally absent from the hearts and minds of the sailors as well as the Ninevites.

This will be the key to understanding Yonah’s behavior – as well as the various interactions between God and his prophet.




Yonah, who is one of the few of the literary prophets to be mentioned in the historiographic books of the T’nakh (see M’lakhim II 14:25), is presented to us as “Yonah ben Amitai”. The implications of his first name (and the resulting association of this story with the Flood narrative) are beyond the scope of this shiur. His last name, however, is laden with implications that foreshadow our story and shed much light onto the dispute between Yonah and Hashem.

Yonah is the “son of truth”, a man of unbending commitment to the truth. He is not only committed to true behaviors but to behaviors which reflect the truth perceived by their actors. In other words, if someone acts properly but that action is not associated with the fundamental identity of the person, then it is not properly a true act.

This approach is presented, to some extent, in Rambam’s famous formulation of “proper Teshuvah” (MT Teshuvah 2:2):

What is Teshuvah? That the sinner should abandon his sin and remove it from his thoughts and commit to never again behave thusly, as it says: “The wicked shall leave his path.” Similarly, he should regret his past, as it says: “For after I had returned away, I repented”. And He Who knows all secrets should [be able to] testify regarding him that he will never again return to this sin, as it says: “nor shall we say any more to the work of our hands.[You are our gods].

In other words, the change that represents true Teshuvah is a fundamental one, an essential one, one that is so impactful that God Himself could testify that this person would never again commit this trespass.

Where does that leave us? Ay, there’s the rub.

This is the demand that Yonah held out for Teshuvah. It wasn’t, as was presented last week, a case of Yonah denying the possibility – or perhaps even the obligation – of Teshuvah. This is nearly impossible to accept, considering the great value given to Teshuvah throughout the N’vi’im – and the promise of Teshuvah in the Torah (D’varim 30).

It was “imperfect” Teshuvah that Yonah rejected. It was the Teshuvah where someone profoundly and deeply regrets his behavior – if only because of the sorry state he is in as a result – and commits to never again transgress; only to find himself a day, a week, a month or even several years later repeating his earlier sinful behavior. This was the “imperfect” Teshuvah, a Teshuvah reflective of the pulsating beat of life, the pendular to and fro of all of creation, which Yonah, the son of truth, could not abide.



We can now review the story and, along the way, respond to our questions from last week’s shiur. At the end of this review, we will suggest a reason why the message of this Sefer has such deep significance for the afternoon of Yom haKippurim – although the seeds of that answer have already been sown.

Chapter 1:

Yonah refuses God’s command to go to Nineveh. Again – why his refusal? He is, indeed, the only prophet to actively refuse God’s command (others have tried, e.g. Mosheh, Hoshea, Amos, Yirmiyah).

Yonah knows the people in Nineveh. The city has a wide-spread reputation for evil (the chastising words of Nahum, cited above, are attested to in period documents and by modern historians. See the frightening description of the behavior of Assyrian’s conquering armies in G. Contenau, Everyday Life In Babylon and Assyria). Yonah knows that one of two things will happen – he will either fail, in which case his mission is for naught, or he will succeed. If he succeeds, it is only because the people, mired in their treacherous ways, will be frightened into an “imperfect Teshuvah”; a repentance which is only motivated by survival and will not make a permanent change in the populace.

He flees “away from God”, as the commentators explain, reasoning that once he is outside of the Land, God will not call to him again (see Kuzari II:14). (Hentschke argues that Yonah’s flight was “measure for measure” in response to God calling him for a pointless mission – he fled, pointlessly, away from God.)

When the storm begins to tear at the ship, Yonah demonstrates his ennui with the entire enterprise of God’s call; indeed, with the very essence of life. He goes down (the language is perfect) and sleeps. Once awoken, he does not call out to God for salvation, because he is tired of the whole process of sin, forgiveness, sin, forgiveness, ad infinitum and ad nauseum.

The sailors portray exactly the kind of “convenient piety” against which Yonah is protesting – praying to their gods is, just like throwing over the vessels, a device for salvation. The sailors are not introspecting, probing the avenues of their hearts for the roots of sin and digging deeply into their souls to return to God. They are, just like children, crying out in pain – and not even maintaining the commitments they made in the midst of those cries.

Yonah is cast overboard and, as far as he is concerned, that is the end.

Chapter 2:

God “appoints” (a word which will show up three more times in the narrative) a fish to swallow Yonah up. He is now the prisoner of his own isolation – perfectly mirroring the type of world he has constructed for himself. After three days, Yonah calls out to God – but, as pointed out last week, his words are a far cry from a prayer. He recounts a psalm of thanksgiving, as if he had already been saved from the deep and was standing in the Beit haMikdash, offering a Korban Todah in thanksgiving. How do we understand the propriety of this paean?

I believe that the key lies in the apposition created between v. 9 and v. 10:

9: Those who pay regard to lying vanities forsake their loyalty.

10: But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation belongs to Hashem.

As opposed to the sailors who “pay regard to lying vanities” and then “forsake their loyalty” (i.e. do not fulfill their commitments), I pay regard only to You and “will pay that which I have vowed.”

This, in a nutshell, is Yonah’s argument to God: Why do You pay heed to those who make promises which they ignore and who faith is only crisis-deep?

We now understand Yonah’s “prayer” inside the fish. Yonah maintains his position – that only a true penitent, one whose commitment reaches to the core of his being, is worthy of God’s favor. Yonah is one like that – and he protests God’s kindness to the sailors (already witnessed) and His plan to show similar kindness to the Ninevites.

Chapter 3:

As recounted above, the people of Nineveh, including their king, are frightened into a quick and dramatic plan of action. Public fasting, sackcloth and ashes – and even a change in behavior – are called for in order to avert the great disaster. Just like the sailors, however, there is no introspection, no sense that the community is seriously off-course and has fallen far from God’s graces; the motivation is purely survival. This is exactly what Yonah feared – not that God would ignore this ignoble Teshuvah, but that he would accept it. And accept it He did!

Why did God accept their Teshuvah?

In 3:10, the verse indicates that God forgave them because they actually repaired the breach of their society and changed their behavior. However, the final verse of the book (and the entire argument leading up to it) states that God forgave them due to His compassion for them as His beloved creatures – no more and no less. Which is it? We will answer this when we briefly analyze the last chapter.

We find this odd behavior of including the animals in the fast, which, judging from the Ninevites motivations, is actually easy to understand. They were not fasting to search deep and wide, to find the dark side of their hearts and to search out ways of returning to God. That sort of task can only be undertaken by a person of intelligence and sensitivity. This Teshuvah was simply one of physical survival – one which is equally shared by the lettered and unlettered, the old and the young – and even the animals.

Chapter 4:

Yonah is displeased, and we now understand why. He goes out of the city to watch – and see if his suspicions will be confirmed (they most likely are, as above). In his protest to God, when we finally hear his argument back, he abbreviates the famous thirteen attributes of God’s compassion. Compare the original:

Hashem, Hashem, God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands. (Sh’mot 34:6-7)


for I knew that You are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and that You repent of the evil.

Note that Yonah, the son of Truth, left “Truth” out of his equation. His claim is that God is, indeed, violating the attribute of Truth by allowing this imperfect Teshuvah to be accepted.

How does God teach Yonah about Divine compassion?

In spite of the fact that Yonah was already shaded by his Sukkah, God made a Kikayon (castor-oil plant?) grow up over him, giving him shade. Why was Yonah so happy about his plant? How did it “save him from his distress”?

It seems that God was teaching Yonah about the beauty of creation – and how that beauty is built upon the fluctuating rhythms of life. This morning, you are shaded by a Kikayon and it gives you great pleasure – even though it wasn’t here yesterday and may not be here tomorrow. Impermanence is not a shortcoming among God’s creatures – it’s part of their essential definition.

In order to reinforce this point, God appoints a worm to destroy the tree – and then appoints a hot wind to torture Yonah.

The final argument is now ready:

And God said to Yonah: Do you do well to be so angry for the plant? And he said: I do well to be so angry, even to death. Then Hashem said, You had concern for the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night; And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, where there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

Who are these people who do not know their right from their left? Why are the cattle mentioned? And didn’t God forgive the Ninevites because they had changed their ways? Why is Divine compassion necessary in such a case?

God’s final statement to Yonah is the powerful message of this Sefer. God loves His creatures, in spite of their failings – perhaps even because of them. The Teshuvah which is sincere – even if driven by the most base threat and even if it doesn’t have “staying power” – is still acceptable to God and allows the Divine compassion to nurture and bring salvation to His children, even those who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand i.e. people whose Teshuvah is like that of a child.



We know understand the significance of this story to the afternoon of Yom haKippurim. For over a week (at least), we have been standing before the Heavenly Throne, making commitments to leave our past behind and embrace a nobler future. We have come close to the end of the road, it is a few hours away from the closing of the gates – and a great fear overcomes us. Will we be able to live up to any of this? Will tomorrow be a repeat of yesterday – or, worse yet, of a few weeks ago? We tremble with the knowledge that we cannot give a full guarantee, that we are human, that we fail. And then we hear the story of Yonah, of a prophet who pronounced those fears as doctrine – and who was soundly defeated by Divine compassion.

Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.