We left last lesson with the indelible image of Yonah confined in the
belly of pregnant fish, enveloped in roe packs, in discomfort and pain
but poised for a spiritual leap. This key image of a person within a fish
demands elaboration. Instinctively we sense that there is special power
and significance to this image; yet, we hardly begin to glimpse its
meaning. Modern man is far removed from his heritage and estranged from
the symbolic world of Biblical imagery and archetype. The image of a man
within a fish does not speak to us; in fact, it only bewilders and
confuses. Not a few readers when they come to this point in the narrative
quietly scratch their heads and say: "Now, what's all this about?"
We will attempt to unlock significance by invoking a parallel, perhaps
more accessible passage, as well as the symbolism and sensibility of the
Jewish mystical tradition. I must caution the reader that the point of the
ensuing discussion is not the esoteric teachings themselves but their
contribution to clarifying the meaning of 'Yonah and the fish'.
There is another story in the Bible of a man imprisoned within an animal.
In both stories, the character praises Hashem and is then restored to his
previous position. The man I have in mind is Nebuchadnezzar, the king of
I Nebuchadnezzar was at rest in my house, and flourishing in my palace.
I saw a dream which made me afraid; and imaginings upon my bed and the
visions of my head affrighted me...
But at the last Daniel came in before me, whose name was Belteshazzar,
according to the name of my god, and in whom is the spirit of the holy
gods; and I told the dream before him… Thus were the visions of my head
upon my bed: I saw, and behold a tree in the midst of the earth, and the
height thereof was great. The tree grew, and was strong, and the height
thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the
earth. The leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it
was food for all; the beasts of the field had shadow under it, and the
fowls of the heaven dwelt in the branches thereof, and all flesh was fed
of it. I saw in the visions of my head upon my bed, and, behold, a watcher
and a holy one came down from heaven.
He cried aloud, and said thus: Hew down the tree, and cut off its
branches, shake off its leaves, and scatter its fruit; let the beasts get
away from under it, and the fowls from its branches.
Nevertheless leave the stump of its roots in the earth, even in a band of
iron and brass, in the tender grass of the field; and let it be wet with
the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts in the grass of
Let his heart be changed from man's, and let a beast's heart be given unto
him; and let seven times pass over him.
The matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the sentence by the word
of the holy ones; to the intent that the living may know that the Most
High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will,
and setteth up over it the lowest of men…
Then Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, was appalled for a while, and
his thoughts affrighted him. The king spoke and said: 'Belteshazzar, let
not the dream, or the interpretation, affright thee.' Belteshazzar
answered and said: 'My lord, the dream be to them that hate thee, and the
interpretation thereof to thine adversaries…
And whereas the king saw a watcher and a holy one coming down from heaven,
and saying: Hew down the tree, and destroy it; nevertheless leave the
stump of the roots thereof in the earth, even in a band of iron and brass,
in the tender grass of the field; and let it be wet with the dew of
heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the field, till seven
times pass over him-- this is the interpretation, O king, and it is the
decree of the Most High, which is come upon my lord the king,
that thou shalt be driven from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the
beasts of the field, and thou shalt be made to eat grass as oxen, and
shalt be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven times shall pass over thee;
till thou know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth
it to whomsoever He will.
And whereas it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree,
thy kingdom shall be sure unto thee, after that thou shalt have known that
the heavens do rule. Wherefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable unto
thee, and break off thy sins by almsgiving, and thine iniquities by
showing mercy to the poor; if there may be a lengthening of thy
prosperity.' All this came upon the king Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of
twelve months he was walking upon the royal palace of Babylon. The king
spoke, and said: 'Is not this great Babylon, which I have built for a
royal dwelling-place, by the might of my power and for the glory of my
While the word was in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven: 'O
king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken: the kingdom is departed from
thee. And thou shalt be driven from men, and thy dwelling shall be with
the beasts of the field; thou shalt be made to eat grass as oxen, and
seven times shall pass over thee; until thou know that the Most High
ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will.'
The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar; and he was
driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the
dew of heaven, till his hair was grown like eagles' feathers, and his
nails like birds' claws.
'And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto
heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the Most
High, and I praised and honoured Him that liveth for ever; for His
dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom from generation to
generation; And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing;
and He doeth according to His will in the host of heaven, and among the
inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him:
What doest Thou? At the same time mine understanding returned unto me; and
for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and my splendour returned unto me;
and my ministers and my lords sought unto me; and I was established in my
kingdom, and surpassing greatness was added unto me. Now I Nebuchadnezzar
praise and extol and honour the King of heaven; for all His works are
truth, and His ways justice; and those that walk in pride He is able to
The parallels to Yonah and the fish are clear. Now let us consult the
The tale of a great soul captive within an animal body calls to mind the
concept of the transmigration of the soul. Now, the teaching that some
souls are given an opportunity to return to complete their earthly task is
not our focus now. There were certainly great authorities that argued that
this concept is not part of Jewish belief as well as many equally great
ones who strongly upheld it. Similarly, there were those who accepted that
a soul can take residence in a human body and others who believed that
certain sins demand purification within animals, or even inanimate
objects. This is not the forum to discuss this profound and deep subject.
What is important to our purpose is the light that it can shed on the
image of a man within the fish.
The Sefer Chareidim (quoted in Nishmas Chaim of R. Menashe ben Israel,
4:13) says: "The Holy One Blessed be He wished to demonstrate to humanity
the possibility of transmigration into a body of an animal through the
greatest of kings, the wicked Nebuchadnezzar. While he was alive, He
brought him down from his throne and ejected him into a field. He walked
on all fours like an animal and appeared like an animal for he had
permitted his tongue go too far and spoke against the High One. After
that, when the appointed period of Divine anger has ended, G-d brought him
back and showed him that He is Almighty.."
The image of Yonah within the fish parallels that of a soul within its
host. When the soul is purified, it is ready to rise. When Yonah began to
repent he was ready to pray.
Among animals fish occupy the highest spiritual place. While kosher
slaughter of cattle requires transecting both the esophagus and trachea
and fowl require at least the trachea, fish are kosher without special
slaughter. They are spared the pain of the slaughterer's knife. For this
reason, the souls of the righteous who need to remedy but a minor fault
are sent into fish (Ohr Hachaim to Genesis 1:26; Maor VaShemesh, notes to
Chullin). This is also the reason why there arose a custom to especially
eat fish on Friday nights (See sources in Z'miros Divrei Yoel).
The image of Yonah within the belly of the fish and of Nevuchadnezzar
eating grass and living like a beast in the field is that of a high and
holy soul imprisoned within the physical and animalistic. Though there may
seem to be no escape out the morass of the material, these passages teach
us that there is a way. It entails nothing more than recognizing the
Creator and expressing his praise. This recognition liberates from the
pull of the material and frees us for our spiritual journey.
Then Jonah prayed unto HaShem his G-d out of the fish's belly.
And he said: I called out of mine affliction unto HaShem, and He answered
me; out of the belly of the nether-world cried I, and Thou heardest my
For Thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, and the
flood was round about me; all Thy waves and Thy billows passed over me.
And I said: 'I am cast out from before Thine eyes'; yet I will look again
toward Thy holy temple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; the deep was round about
me; the weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars
closed upon me for ever; yet hast Thou brought up my life from the pit, O
HaShem my G-d. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered HaShem; and my
prayer came in unto Thee, into Thy holy temple. They that regard lying
vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the
voice of thanksgiving; that which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is of
HaShem. And HaShem spoke unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the