Asher Nadarti Ashalema (I)
Analysis of Sefer Yonah, Part 1
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
A shorter essay of mine, dealing with the "13 Attributes of Compassion", has been published in a "High Holidays Reader" and is available online - there are some worthy essays in the collection and it is available online at www.tebah.org.
Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Tov
The book of Yonah comprises the bulk of the Haftarah read at Minchah on Yom
haKippurim (most communities add the last three verses of Mikhah as an
"epilogue" to the Haftarah). In anticipation of Yom haRachamim, I would like
to examine this Sefer with an eye to understanding both its own message as
well as its relevance to Yom haKippurim.
The story is, itself, a simple one that is unquestionably complex. The
simplicity lies in the very human responses on the part of the main
characters (Yonah, the sailors, the people of Nineveh); the complexity grows
as we hold these reactions up to the greater contextual framework of T'nakh
and some theological tenets to which we hold fast.
For example - Yonah's flight from God is the well-known premise for his sea
voyage. We can understand, in human terms, shirking responsibility (although
why Yonah doesn't want to heed God's call is not at all clear from the
text). The complexity begins when we recognize that a prophet is a man (or
woman) of great spiritual, emotional and intellectual stature (see, inter
alia, Moreh Nevukhim II: 32-34). How could someone like that even consider
running away from God? Is there anywhere that is out of His reach?
Where shall I go from your spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence? If
I ascend up to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you
are there! If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost
parts of the sea, Even there shall your hand lead me, and your right hand
shall hold me. (T'hillim 139:7-10)
We also find it hard to understand Yonah's bitter reaction to the success of
his mission - when the people of Nineveh repent and God annuls His decree,
the prophet is embittered "until death".
We will return to the text and its difficulties - but, first, let's place
Sefer Yonah in its proper context on Yom haKippurim.
On Shabbat and Festival mornings (along with Tish'a b'Av morning), as well
as fast days at Minchah, a selection from the N'vi'im is read immediately
after the conclusion of the Torah reading. Although the exact origin of this
practice is unclear, the sources indicate that at some point during the
times of the Second Temple, a decree was issued forbidding the Jews to
engage in the public reading of the Torah. In response, parallel selections
from the N'vi'im were selected and read in lieu of the "missed" Torah
reading. Although a few of the selections are mentioned in the Talmuds, most
of the occasions for reading from the N'vi'im allowed for enough flexibility
that the specific selection was not codified until much later. (For the most
part, the festival readings were fixed earlier - we will examine the entire
development of the Haftarot next summer when we analyze the seven Haftarot
of consolation). As to why certain Torah readings (e.g. Shabbat mornings)
"merited" the "reading-in-lieu" from the N'vi'im - and others (e.g. Rosh
Chodesh and Hanukkah morning) did not - is a discussion that belongs to a
different shiur. In any case, even after the decree was rescinded, the
custom remained in practice and, to the consternation of many a 12-year old,
remains so until today.
In sum, we read a selection from the N'vi'im ("Haftarah") as a parallel to
the Torah reading. The usual minimum of verse to be read - 21 - parallels
the absolute minimum readable at a Shabbat morning reading (7 Aliyot times 3
verses - as to why we don't allow for a shorter reading on Festivals, when
there are fewer Aliyot - is a matter to be discussed in another forum).
Indeed, the reason that the person called up to read the Haftarah first
reads from the Torah ("Maftir") is to show honor to the Torah, as it would
be degrading to ignore the Torah and only read from the N'vi'im (BT Megillah
In the case of the festivals, as opposed to an association with the content
of the Torah reading, the Haftarah usually has a direct association with the
festival itself - either historic (e.g. the first day of Pesach) or
meta-historic (e.g. the Haftarot of the last day of Pesach and Shabbat hol
The Gemara (BT Megillah 31a) reports that on Yom haKippurim in the morning,
we read "Aharei Mot" (Vayyikra 16) and the Haftarah is from Yeshaya 57-58.
Both of these readings "make sense" within the general context of Festival
readings; Vayyikra 16 details the Avodah (worship) performed by the Kohen
Gadol on Yom haKippurim in the Mishkan (later to be applied to the Beit
haMikdash). The selection from Yeshaya contains the famous phrase detailing
the "true" fast:
Is such the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is
it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes
under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Hashem? Is
not this rather the fast that I have chosen? to loose the chains of
wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and
that you bring the poor, who are cast out, to your house? When you see the
naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?
It is abundantly clear why this reading "fits" Yom haKippurim - lest we get
carried away with our own piety in our fasting and confessing, the Navi
reminds us that the real purpose of fasting is to effect a spiritual
metamorphosis within us, making us more sensitive to the poor and needy.
The Gemara goes on to detail the readings at Minchah on Yom haKippurim: At
Minhah we read the section of Arayot (forbidden sexual liaisons) and for
haftarah the book of Yonah. (Megillah ibid)
As much as the relevance of the morning readings is easy to understand, the
aptness of these readings is difficult to decipher. Why do we read the list
of forbidden relationships at Minchah on Yom haKippurim? Some of the
Rishonim address this (see, e.g. Rashi and Tosafot ad loc.), noting that
this is an auspicious time to commit to avoiding these heinous sins; yet, we
must admit, these sort of transgressions are not usually on most people's
minds after fasting most of the day.
The Haftarah of Yonah is even harder to figure. To being with, the story
itself is hard to properly explicate. In addition, we never hear the content
of Yonah's call to the Ninevites to repent - only the fact of that call and
their (surprising?) reaction. There are so many powerful passages in the
N'vi'im that could inspire us to do Teshuvah at this sober moment - what is
it about Yonah that earns it the honored Haftarah of Yom haKippurim afternoon?
Before addressing the text itself, I would like to propose a theory which, a
priori, may sound radical - yet, I believe, is borne out by the sources.
As pointed out above, the Haftara is always attached to an occasion of
K'riat haTorah - and usually comprises some parallel story to either the
Torah reading or the "Inyanei d'Yoma" (matters related to the "day" - i.e.
the festival). Whether parallel to the K'riah or the Yom, however, the
Haftarah always is occasioned by the K'riah - in other words, the Haftarah
only occurs as a result of the K'riah and as an ancillary reading to that
As pointed out above, the Torah reading in the afternoon seems to have
little to do with Yom haKippurim (see, however, the explanation of the
G'onim quoted in a number of Rishonim). Perhaps the most reasonable choice
would have been the section of Yom haKippurim in Vayyikra 23, which was read
by the Kohen Gadol (M. Yoma 7:1).
Gabba'im and Ba'alei K'riah know the simplest connection - the K'riah of
Minchah comes almost immediately after the K'riah of Shacharit. Indeed, in
many communities in the Middle Ages, the morning reading included Vayyikra
17 (cf. Shibbolei haLeket #320); i.e. the Minchah reading was simply a
continuation of the morning reading. (In other communities, they would only
read the "middle section" of Vayyikra 17 when Yom haKippurim occurred on
Shabbat, necessitating an additional Aliyah; see, inter alia, Or Zarua'
II:393. See also the literature cited by J. Tabori: "Mo'adei Yisra'el
biT'kufat haMishnah vehaTalmud", p. 292, n. 135)
In general, this afternoon K'riat haTorah is puzzling. If we are regarding
this part of the day as a "Ta'anit" (as we do with the afternoon of Tish'ah
b'Av), why don't we read the section from Sh'mot 33/34, which is read on
every other fast day in the afternoon? This would be an appropriate K'riah,
since those events culminated (according to tradition) on the very first Yom
haKippurim, when the second tablets were carved by Mosheh. If, on the other
hand, we continue to regard the day as "special", i.e. not within the
general category of "Ta'anit", then why have a reading at all? We don't find
a Torah reading in the afternoon (besides fast days) except on Shabbat - why
do we read now?
I would like to suggest that Yonah is an exception to the rule; the
motivating factor in the reading at Minchah on Yom haKippurim is the book of
Yonah (as opposed to the Torah reading from Vayyikra 18). In other words,
we cannot simply read from the N'vi'im without a K'riat haTorah (as cited
above from the Gemara), due to honor for the Torah. Since the book of Yonah
should be read, we first take out the Torah and "pick up" from the morning's
reading, fulfilling the minimal reading of 3 Aliyot - which allows us to
publicly read the story of Yonah.
Although we may have solved one problem, we now have to find a strong
motivating factor for reading Yonah at Minchah - so strong, that we effect a
K'riat haTorah just in order to read this story.
In order to find that factor, we must first (finally) analyze the story
itself and address some of the difficulties within the text.
The first problem in assessing the story of Yonah is, as mentioned above,
Yonah's reticence to accept God's task. Besides the preposterous attempt to
"flee from God's face", why is Yonah so bothered by this mission?
A number of answers have been suggested over the years, answers which end up
addressing the greater question of the message of this Sefer. We will assay
them further on.
In addition to this "overview" question, Yonah's behavior both on the ship
and in the belly of the fish are hard to understand.
When the ship is threatened - and Yonah knows that it is due to God's
displeasure with him - Yonah goes to sleep in the hold while all of the
sailors pray fervently "each man to his own god". Once in the belly of the
fish, he is silent for three days. At that point, instead of praying to be
saved, he offers a psalm of thanksgiving to God for having saved him,
confident that "yet I will look again toward Your holy temple."
There is one glaring problem in the Sefer. The response of the Ninevites to
Yonah's call is twofold:
- 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... (3:5-7)
- ...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; (3:8-10)
In other words, the people of Nineveh both practiced the form of fasting
(e.g. sackcloth, ashes) as well as repenting from the sinful behavior which
got them into trouble in the first place. This second response, as noted in
the verse, is the action which earns a reprieve from God's decree. (See M.
Ta'anit 2:1 in which this point is pronounced by the elder at a public fast).
We would then expect God to "explain" His forgiving the Ninevites based on
their behavior modification - yet the Sefer ends with an enigmatic phrase,
in which God "defends" His compassion for the Ninevites:
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 "cannot discern between their right hand and their
left hand" - i.e. do not know right from wrong? If this is a description of
the populace of Nineveh, then how can their "Teshuvah" be of any value? The
basic premise of Teshuvah is free will (see MT Teshuvah 7:1). Some have
suggested that this is a reference to the children of Nineveh, but the use
of Adam as a reference specifically to children has no support from any
other passage in T'nakh. In addition, why are the cattle included here -
they did not "repent" (nor did they sin!). This brings us back to the
description of the behavior of the Ninevites: Why did they force the animals
to wear sackcloth and fast?
In sum, we have raised several major questions (there are countless other
"detail" questions on this Sefer, some of which will be addressed in our
- What is Yonah's dispute with God?
- Why does he think that he can flee from God?
- How can we understand his behavior on the ship?
- How can we explain the content of his "prayer" in the belly of the fish?
- Why do the Ninevites include their animals in the fast?
- What causes God to forgive them - their behavior or His compassion?
- Who are the people who "do not know their right hand from their left"?
- From what "evil" is the Kikayon (castor oil) plant meant to save Yonah?
THE FIRST SOLUTION (A):
STRICT JUSTICE VS. COMPASSION
The questions asked here, along with the Yom-Kippur-connection problem, are
not new - many solutions have been offered over the years. Many of the
answers focus on Yonah's complaint (4:2) that God is compassionate,
forebearing and long-suffering - violating, as it were, the notion of Divine
Justice. Yonah is a man of strict justice who is offended by God's compassion.
Although the explicit verse cited above does much to recommend this
approach, there are far too many questions left unanswered as a result.
First of all, why would Yonah, a prophet of God, be opposed to God's
compassion, which is (as far as we can tell) one of the defining features of
His relationship with His creatures?
In addition, it does nothing to help us understand the significance of
Yonah's behavior on the ship, his odd "prayer" inside the belly of the fish
- or any of the other questions raised above.
In addition - and we must always keep this at the forefront of our
discussion - if the dispute is "Din vs. Rahamim", why is this Sefer read on
Yom haKippurim? If it is to show us that Divine compassion overrules Divine
Justice, why not read from some of the consolations of Yeshaya, or even some
of the passages in Yirmiyah which point to God's everlasting love for the
B'nei Yisra'el in spite of their failings?
THE FIRST SOLUTION (B):
TESHUVAH VS. KAPPARAH
A variation on the first solution has recently been suggested by Professor
Shnayer Leiman. Professor Leiman points out that nowhere in the Torah is
there a mention of Teshuvah as a Mitzvah (with the possible exception of
D'varim 30:11-14 - see Rashi and Ramban ad loc.); rather, the clear
prescription for a sinner is "Kapparah". Kapparah entails performing ritual
acts - usually associated with bringing Korbanot - which will expiate the
sinner and cleanse him of his spiritual blemish. Whereas the Torah lays out,
in great detail, the process of Kapparah for any number of different
transgressions, the internal process of Teshuvah is not addressed.
Conversely, the N'vi'im assiduously avoid mention of "Kapparah" and focus,
almost exclusively, on the process we call "Teshuvah" - retrospection and
introspection, regret, commitment for the future and actual change of
behavior. These two approaches to sin (which are reflected even in medieval
literature; compare Rambam's Hilkhot Teshuvah with those compiled by R.
Eliezer Rokeach) are, prima facie, at odds. That is the dispute between
Yonah, who takes the "Toraic perspective", and God, who adopts the Prophetic
approach of preferring Teshuvah to Kapparah.
As interesting as this approach may be - and it has interesting implications
for understanding subtle tensions within Rabbinic and post-Rabbinic
literature - it still leaves us with the same difficulties mentioned above.
THE SECOND SOLUTION:
UNIVERSALISM VS. NATIONALISM
A common approach to understanding Yonah's flight (which is clearly
motivated by his fear of success) is that he was driven by his overwhelming
concern for the B'nei Yisra'el. This approach itself is usually expressed in
one of two variations:
He did not want to allow the Ninevites to save themselves, since they bore
enmity towards the B'nei Yisra'el (and would eventually conquer the Northern
Kingdom -Avrabanel), or
He was concerned that the Ninevites would heed his call - thus making the
B'nei Yisra'el look bad both in the eyes of the world and in God's eyes,
since they were not returning to God. (Rashi, Radak among others, based on
Note how smoothly S'forno integrates both answers: "He knew that Yisra'el
would not submit themselves in the same fashion [as the Ninevites] and
Yisra'el would, therefore, fall to the Assyrian kings. (S'forno on 4:1)
Essentially, the dispute between Yonah and God boils down to different
understandings of the special relationship which exists between HaKadosh
Barukh Hu and the B'nei Yisra'el. Is it fundamentally chauvinistic and
parochial, where our concern for other nations is, at best, only when it
could not possibly conflict with self-interest? Or do we internalize and
actualize God's abiding love and concern for all of His creatures, even
while giving precedence to the concern and welfare of our family - the
B'nei Yisra'el? Should we help a nation "get better" spiritually, even if
that will harm us? Does it make a difference if that harm is caused as much
by our own shortcomings as by the success of others?
This is a popular approach to understanding the dispute - but it makes the
selection of Yonah for Haftarat Minchah on Yom haKippurim even more
difficult to decipher. In addition, it leaves all of our questions unanswered.
In part 2, we will present another approach to understanding Sefer Yonah
which will, hopefully, provide satisfactory answers to our questions along
with giving us greater insight into Haza"l's selection of this Sefer for the
Haftarah of Minchah on Yom haKippurim.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.