Jonah – A Lesson In Compassion
By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)
One of the highlights of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the reading of the Book of Jonah – a small book which contains a world of philosophy. The major message of the Book of Jonah is likewise the major message of Yom Kippur, so that the proper understanding of the former will most certainly illuminate the latter. It is worth noting that we never hear the content of Jonah’s call to the Ninevites to repent, only the fact of that call, and their reaction. Further the name of the Book is “Jonah”, not “Nineveh”. This teaches us that Jonah is the central focus, not Nineveh! We are, therefore, perplexed when we do not see Jonah’s teshuva either. He never repents! This suggests that his words are not as important as his actions. This book will require a very thoughtful approach if we are to discern it’s true lessons.
What is Jonah’s background?
Jonah starts off with a crucial identification:
Yonah (Jonah) 1:1 Now the word of HaShem came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying:
Our sages tell that Yonah son of Amittai was the son of the widow from Tzorphath with whom Elijah the prophet stayed during the years of famine, and that it was this boy that Elijah revived.
Melachim alef (I Kings) 17:17-24 And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him. 18 And she said unto Elijah: 'What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?' 19 And he said unto her: 'Give me thy son.' And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into the upper chamber, where he abode, and laid him upon his own bed. 20 And he cried unto the HaShem, and said: HaShem my God, hast Thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?' 21 And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the HaShem, and said: HaShem my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come back into him.' 22 And the HaShem hearkened unto the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back into him, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the upper chamber into the house, and delivered him unto his mother; and Elijah said: 'See, thy son liveth.' 24 And the woman said to Elijah: 'Now I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the HaShem in thy mouth is truth (emet).'
Amittai is derived from the Hebrew word: ‘emet’, meaning truth. From this we understand that Jonah is a man of truth. Truth, as Jonah understands it, demands that evil never be overlooked; evil must be punished. Jonah is the “son of truth”, a man of unbending commitment to the truth. Keep this in mind because it plays a pivotal role later on.
Yehoshua (Joshua) 19:10-13 10 And the third lot came up for the children of Zebulun according to their families; and the border of their inheritance was unto Sarid. 11 And their border went up westward, even to Maralah, and reached to Dabbesheth; and it reached to the brook that is before Jokneam. 12 And it turned from Sarid eastward toward the sunrising unto the border of Chisloth-tabor; and it went out to Dobrath, and went up to Japhia. 13 And from thence it passed along eastward to Gath-hepher, to Ethkazin; and it went out at Rimmon-methoar unto Neah.
The tribe of Zebulun is described in Jacob’s prophetic last words to his children as maritime merchants involved in the shipping trade: ‘Zevulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea: and he shall be a haven for ships’ (Gen. 49:13). If this is so, then we can assume that Jonah, being a Zebulunite, was quite comfortable on ships. The Talmud says that his father was from the tribe of Zebulun and his mother was from the tribe of Asher.
I will escape from His presence to a place where His glory is not declared. (If) I ascend above the heavens, it is said, “Above the heavens is his glory”. (If) above the earth, (it is said), “The whole earth is full of his glory” ; behold, I will escape to the sea, to a place where His glory is not proclaimed.
The personality of Jonah is filled with ironies. He is called the boy; one of the prophets’ disciples; the young man; the prophet’s attendant; this lunatic; that man; His servant; and the prophet, who was from Gat-Chefer. He is ben-Amittai, the prophet of uncompromising truth, foreshadowed in his mother’s proclamation: “…the word of Hashem in your mouth is truth (EMET).”
In v.2, Jonah is commanded to go to Nineveh, but he attempts to flee “from the presence of HaShem“. And, just in case we didn’t get it the first time, we see at the end of v.2 that the reason he was going to Tarshish was to escape “from the presence of HaShem“. Why is a PROPHET attempting to flee from the presence of HaShem when he knows very well that that is not possible? Further, what powerful emotion is driving him? Why did the prophet find a mission to Nineveh so objectionable? These are crucial questions to understand because they build the picture that will explain this entire book. To approach an answer to some of these questions, lets look at the next pesukim and see the depth of emotion that Jonah exhibits.
The rest of chapter one tells us that there was a storm that begins to tear at the ship, Jonah demonstrates his despair and dissatisfaction with the entire enterprise of HaShem‘s call; indeed, with the very essence of life. He goes down and sleeps. While everyone else is calling out to their gods, Jonah doesn’t even bother to pray. He is disgusted and just descends into the bowels of the ship – to sleep! Once awoken, he does not call out to HaShem for salvation, because he is tired of the whole process of sin, forgiveness, sin, forgiveness, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. If there is no penalty for sin, then there is no truth to HaShem and His word. This is not something that the son of truth can abide. Without truth, life is not worth living.
When he is awoken, Jonah tells the sailors that his own death would be the only survivable option. It is notable, in v.12, that Jonah comes up with this solution as his first option. Normally, a man will seek many other options before he calls for his own death. Why doesn’t Jonah look at other options? Why doesn’t Jonah simply repent and agree to go to Nineveh? It seems clear that Jonah wanted to die. In other words, Jonah was so upset about his mission in Nineveh that he wanted to die. We will see that this suicidal attitude a couple more times in this small book.
Once in the belly of the fish, Jonah is silent for three days. At that point, instead of praying to be saved, he offers a psalm of thanksgiving to HaShem for having saved him, confident that “yet I will look again toward Your holy temple“. What is going on?
In chapter two, Jonah prays and HaShem causes the fish to vomit him out. However, a careful reading of this chapter will show a complete lack of teshuva. Jonah never speaks out his sin, nor does he repent of his desire to avoid going to Nineveh. Jonah is an extremely reluctant prophet.
What is Teshuva? 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]”.
It was “imperfect” teshuva that Jonah rejected, both for himself and also from the Ninevites. It was the teshuva 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” teshuva, a teshuva reflective of the pulsating beat of life, the pendulum to and fro of all of creation, which Jonah, the son of truth, could not abide.
The key to understanding Jonah’s prayer lies in the juxtaposition of v. 9 and v. 10:
9: Those who pay regard to lying vanities forsake their loyalty.
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 Jonah’s argument with HaShem: Why do You pay heed to those who make promises which they ignore and who faith is only crisis-deep?
We now understand Jonah’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 HaShem‘s favor. Jonah is one like that - and he protests HaShem‘s kindness to the sailors (already witnessed) and His plan to show similar kindness to the Ninevites.
In chapter three, 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 HaShem‘s graces; the motivation is purely survival. This is exactly what Jonah feared - not that HaShem would ignore this ignoble teshuva, but that he would accept it. And accept it He did!
Why did HaShem accept their Teshuva?
In v.3:10, the verse indicates that HaShem forgave them because they actually repaired the breach of their society and changed their behavior. They suddenly had the potential to become something significantly better that what they were. However, the final verse of the book (and the entire argument leading up to it) states that HaShem forgave them due to His compassion for them as His beloved creatures, no more and no less.
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 HaShem. That sort of task can only be undertaken by a person of intelligence and sensitivity. This Teshuva 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.
Yonah (Jonah) 4:2 And he prayed unto HaShem, and said: ‘I pray Thee, O HaShem, was not this my saying, when I was yet in mine own country? Therefore I fled beforehand unto Tarshish; for I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and compassionate, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy, and repentest Thee of the evil.
Compare what Jonah said to what we actually say on Yom Kippur:
Jonah, the son of Truth, left “Truth” out of his equation. His claim is that HaShem is, indeed, violating the attribute of truth by allowing this imperfect teshuva to be accepted. Jonah tells HaShem that He is not truthful: There is no penalty given to the wicked. They get forgiven just like the righteous.
At this point, HaShem has already tried teaching Jonah that He has other attributes that take precedence over truth, namely compassion. Jonah disobeyed HaShem and deserved death, yet HaShem preserved him in the fish. Jonah did NOT get the point. So, HaShem is going to repeat the lesson in a new way.
Never the less, Jonah sees it as though HaShem has pardoned, or will pardon, Adolf Hitler. He cannot abide in that kind of world. He want thru attribute of truth to bring justice. This is why he repeatedly wants to die. This is why Jonah replaced the midda of truth with the midda ‘changing Your mind’.
In spite of the fact that Jonah was already shaded by his Succah, HaShem made a Kikayon grow up over him, giving him shade. Why was Jonah so happy about his plant? How did it “save him from his distress”?
It seems that HaShem was teaching Jonah 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 HaShem‘s creatures, it’s part of their essential definition.
In order to reinforce this point, HaShem appoints a worm to destroy the tree, and then appoints a hot wind to torture Jonah. At this point, Jonah got the point. He now understood the value of compassion in giving folks another chance, even if it meant delaying truth.
The final argument is now ready:
And HaShem said to Jonah: 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 HaShem forgive the Ninevites because they had changed their ways? Why is Divine compassion necessary in such a case?
HaShem‘s final statement to Jonah is the powerful message of this Sefer. HaShem loves His creatures, in spite of their failings - perhaps even because of them. The teshuva which is sincere, even if driven by the most base threat and even if it doesn’t have “staying power”, is still acceptable to HaShem 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 teshuva 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.
The Hebrew word for womb is rechem – רֶחֶם. The three letters of רֶחֶם also form the root of the Hebrew word Rachamim - רַחֲמִים, which is normally translated as compassion. This teaches us that the womb is the source of compassion.
What does a womb do? The womb takes a zygote and determines whether the zygote is viable: Does it have the potential to succeed? If it has that potential, then the womb shelters and nourishes the zygote. If it does not have the potential to succeed, then the zygote is expelled by the womb. Thus we understand that Rachamim – רַחֲמִים – compassion, is the potential for success. If one does teshuva – repentance, then one has the potential to succeed, and compassion will nourish and shelter that potential.
This understanding leads to another interesting idea: Rosh HaShana is the day of man’s conception. Ten days later that zygote is implanted in the womb – on Yom HaKippurim – the day of compassion. If we repent, then we have potential. If we have potential, then HaShem gives us compassion – on Yom HaKippurim. This is why we read the book of Jonah on Yom HaKippurim. This book is all about compassion.
If we look at the siddur for the additions to our prayers during the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we will see that they all focus on life. Further, we pray that we will be written in the book of life, not because we deserve it, but because that is HaShem‘s desire. His womb, His compassion, is all about life and its potential.
In the words of the Zohar: These verses allude to the whole of man’s life from his emergence into the world until the resurrection of the dead. Jonah’s going down into the boat is man’s soul entering the body to live in this world. Man goes in this world like a boat in the great sea that seems likely to be wrecked. When man sins in this world and thinks he will flee from his Master without taking account of the world to come, HaShem sends a great storm-wind - the decree of harsh justice - and demands justice from this man, striking the boat and causing illness. Even on his sickbed, his soul is still not stirred to repent - Jonah goes down into the depths of the boat and slumbers.
Who is the captain of the boat that wakes him up? This is the good inclination, who tells him, “Now is not the time to sleep - they are taking you to judgment over all that you have done in this world: repent!” “What is your work? From where do you come? Which is your land? From which people are you”. “What work have you done in this world - confess to HaShem about it! Think where you come from - a putrid drop - and don’t be arrogant before Him! Remember that you were created from the very earth!
Ask yourself if you are still protected by the merits of the founding fathers of your people!” When the person is about to die, his defending angels try to save him - the sailors try to row back to the land - but the storm-wind is too strong and can only be assuaged when man is taken down into his grave.
Throwing Jonah into the sea corresponds to burial in the grave. The belly of the fish is hell, as it says, “From the belly of hell I cried out”.
The three days and nights Jonah was in the belly of the fish corresponds to the first three days in the grave, when his innards burst onto his face and they say, “Take what you put inside yourself: you ate and drank all your days and did not give to the poor. You made all your days like festivals, while the poor went hungry and did not eat with you.”
The judgment continues for thirty days with the soul and body being judged together. Afterwards the soul ascends and the body rots in the ground, until the time when HaShem will revive the dead. “He has swallowed up death for ever” - “And HaShem spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto the dry land”. And in this fish there are remedies for the whole world.
Why did Jonah run away?
Why was he swallowed by the fish – repentance was clearly not the issue? (His repentance was clearly insincere because he quickly repeated his behavior.)
Jonah was swallowed by the fish in order to teach him that there are times when HaShem exercises the attribute of Compassion while seemingly disregarding the attribute of truth. Unfortunately, Jonah was grateful but he did not ‘get’ the lesson. He still did not understand.
What was the overall message of the book given the ‘hanging’ ending?
The ending is deeper than just Jonah is hot? Jonah wanted to die… This does not make sense! No sane person would want to die just because he was hot.
Since Jonah did not get a chance to speak his mind at the end of this Sefer, we must understand that he finally absorbed the message. Why? Because it is obvious that HaShem tried at least twice to convey the message. If Jonah had not yet absorbed this message, HaShem would try at least three times to get His message across. Further, the Midrash indicates that Jonah did understand HaShem‘s message at the end of the Sefer.
By Rabbi Daniel Lapin
You don't need the power of command in order to be a leader. You don't have to be able to fire, fine or imprison people in order to lead them. It is possible to influence others by evoking admiration.
Let's survey the first chapter of the book of Jonah, focusing on the interaction between Jonah and the sailors who take him Tarshish in his attempt to evade God and His directives.
At first, the crew is merely "them".
Yonah (Jonah) 1:3 ...[Jonah] went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare for it, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish...
Even on today's large cruise-liners, people tend to socialize. In Jonah's day, ships were much smaller, carrying mostly cargo. Not surprisingly, experiencing a terrifying storm, Jonah and the crew became acquainted. In Jonah's eyes, they were no longer a faceless "them." They were sailors, idolatrous but nonetheless, professional mariners.
Yonah (Jonah) 1:5 Then the sailors were afraid, and cried each one to his own god...
At this point, Jonah surprisingly goes below deck for a nap.
The captain awakens him, asking him to pray as well.
Yonah (Jonah) 1:7 And each man said to his colleague, come let's throw lots in order to discover on whose account is this evil coming upon us...
God responded to the sailors and the lots reveal Jonah to be the cause of the unnatural storm.
Yonah (Jonah) 1:8 And they said to him, inasmuch as you are the cause of this evil, please tell us what is your profession and from where do you come, what is your land and from what people do you come?
By their brilliant question, these sailors show themselves to be quite different from what one imagines sailors to be. After all, since time immemorial, sailors separated from family, society, and the institutions of civilization, tend to be rough, rowdy, and unrestrained.
However, these men realize that how one contributes to the world through work reveals a great deal about a person. So does examining those with whom he associates. They attempt to make sense of Jonah through their questions.
Jonah responds by essentially explaining that the only relevant thing they need to know is that this unnatural storm is due to his relationship with God.
They ask Jonah what they can do in order to restore calm to the wild seas.
"Throw me overboard" he calmly assures them.
These men truly reveal greatness by rejecting this answer. Verse 13 describes their mighty, but futile, struggle to bring the ship safely into harbor. Eventually, they accept Jonah's words and obey him, throwing him overboard.
Through their interaction, Jonah comes to recognize the Godly spirit in these men. He relates to them not as faceless, unimportant individuals-them--but as sensitive and morally aware men. In turn, they recognize his holiness and pray to Jonah's God, rather than to their gods. After the storm abates, validating their actions, these sailors become God-fearing men, bringing sacrifices to the Lord and vowing to lead upright lives.
The sailors' behavior led Jonah to grow in the way he related to people; his understanding of God and willingness to sacrifice himself for the ship and her crew similarly made its mark on the men.
Jonah was merely a passenger with no power. The sailors were not society's elite. Yet each exerted enormous influence by evoking admiration. Jonah learned how to better relate to people; the sailors learned how to better relate to God.
Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer, Translated and annotated with introduction and indices by Gerald Friedlander, 1916
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The footnotes notes in Pirke De Rebbe Eliezer, chapter 10, has the following note:
A very interesting point is suggested by a passage in Origen, contra Celsum, vii. 57, according to which Jonah was considered to be the Messiah in place of Jesus. Our book ascribes certain Messianic functions to Jonah in connection with the Leviathan and the Day of Israel’s salvation. Perhaps he is a type of the “Messiah ben Joseph” who is to overcome the Anti-Christ or Satan (i.e. the Leviathan). The New Testament connects the story of Jonah with its Messiah; see Matt. 12:39-41 and ibid. 16:4; cf. Luke 11:29-32. The “Fish” as a Christian Messianic emblem may be associated with the Jonah legends.
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This study was written by
Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David
Comments may be submitted to:
Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian
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 Adapted from 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 theological-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.
 Prophet in the days of Jeroboam II.; son of Amittai of Gath-hepher. He is a historical personage; for, according to II Kings 14:25, he predicted in HaShem’s name the extent to which Jeroboam II. would restore the boundaries of the Northern Kingdom, "from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain." The wording of the passage may also imply that Jonah's prophecy was uttered even before Jeroboam II., perhaps in the time of Jehoahaz (thus Klostermann to II Kings 13:4). In any case Jonah is one of the prophets who advised the house of Jehu, and it is not unlikely that with him the series of prophets that began with Elijah came to a close.
 He received his prophetic appointment from Elisha, under whose orders he anointed Jehu (II Kings ix.; Ḳimḥhi,ad loc.; and Ẓemaḥ David).
 Meaning dove.
 See also Melachim Bet (II Kings) 14:23-27
 Pirke D’Rebbi Eliezer ch 33
 Melachim aleph (I Kings) 17:8ff
 Ibid. 5 vv 17-24; Midrash Shohar Tov 26
 Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer, 33
 Yalkut Shimoni
 אמתי = “One whose words always come true”. Lit. “my truth”.
 Melachim bet (2 Kings) 14:25 (Gat-Chefer).
 Tanhuma Tzav: 14, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 10, Jerusalem 1852, 24a.
 Pirke De Rebbe Eliezer, chapter 10.
 Tehillim (Psalms) 113:4
 Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 6:3
 Melachim alef (I Kings) 17:22.
 Melachim bet (II Kings) 9:4.
 Melachim bet (II kings) 9:1.
 Nineveh, the city to which Jonah was sent, was a very important city in ancient Assyria. Nineveh was Israel’s enemy and Jonah really wanted HaShem to destroy them
 We recognize that a prophet is a man of great spiritual, emotional, and intellectual stature (see, inter alia, Rambam’s Guide For The Perplexed II: 32-34)
 The storm which overtook Jonah is quoted as one of three most noteworthy storms (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1:6).
 Pirke D’Rebbi Eliezer chapter 10 say: Rabbi Hananiah says, PEOPLE FROM ALL THE SEVENTY NATIONS WERE PRESENT IN THAT BOAT, each one with his idols in his hand (cf. 1:5). [I.e. the story of Jonah has universal application.] They prostrated to their idols, saying, “Let each one call in the name of his gods and the god that answers us and saves us from this trouble is God”. Jonah was asleep until the captain of the boat came and aroused him. When Jonah told him he was a Hebrew, the captain said, “We have heard that the God of the Hebrews is great. Rise and call to your God: perhaps He will have pity on us and perform miracles for us as He did for you at the Red Sea “. Jonah said, “I will not deny that this trouble has come upon you because of me. Throw me into the sea and it will become calm”. Rabbi Shimon says: The sailors did not want to throw Jonah into the sea, but after throwing all their baggage into the sea and trying in vain to row back to the shore, they took Jonah and lowered him up to his ankles into the water. The sea started becoming calmer, but when they hoisted him up again it started to rage again. They lowered him in up to his belly and it became calm; they pulled him up and it raged again. They lowered him down to his neck and it became calm, but when they pulled him up again it continued raging, until they threw him in completely - and the sea became calm.
 Mishneh Torah Teshuva 2:2
 See 3:7
 Castor-oil plant?
 The gourd of Jonah was enormous. Before its appearance Jonah was tortured by the heat and by insects of all kinds, his clothes having been burned by the heat of the belly of the fish; he was tortured again after the worm had caused the gourd to wither. This brought Jonah to pray that God should be a merciful ruler, not a strict judge (Pirke Rabbi Eliezer 10; Yalkut. 551).
 A zygote (from Greek ζυγωτός zygōtos ”joined” or “yoked”, from ζυγοῦν zygoun ”to join” or “to yoke”), is the initial cell formed when two gamete cells (a sperm and an egg for example) are joined by means of sexual reproduction. In multicellular organisms, it is the earliest developmental stage of the embryo.
 Vayakhel 199a ff
 Yonah (Jonah) 1:8
 Yonah (Jonah) 2:3
 Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 25:8