The book of Jonah is read every year in the synagogue on Yom Kippur as the Haftara after the afternoon Minchah service reading from the Torah. Jonah is appropriate reading on the Day of Atonement as the message of this profoundly deep and heavily veiled prophetic metaphor is ultimately simple and completely universal: Repent!

Our sages tell that Yonah (=dove) son of Amitai (from the root EMeT=Truth) was the son of the widow from Tzorphath with whom Elijah the prophet stayed during the years of famine (I Kings 17:8ff), and that it was this boy that Elijah revived (ibid. vv 17-24; Midrash Shohar Tov 26). Jonah learned Torah from Elisha and was considered Tzaddik Gamur - completely righteous. It was Jonah that Elisha sent to anoint Yehu ben Nimshi, nemesis of the house of Ahab (II Kings 9:1-10), and Jonah's prophecy that Yehu's grandson, Yerav'am ben Yo'ash would restore the boundaries of Israel is recorded in II Kings 14:25. Here Jonah is said to have come from "Gath HaHefer", prompting the rabbis to discuss if he was from the tribe of Zevulun or Asher. Jonah is said to have received prophecy in the merit of going up to Jerusalem for the festival of Succoth (at a time when the kingdom of Israel prevented the people from doing so) and rejoicing greatly at Simhat Beith HaSho'eva, the celebration of drawing the water for the Succoth water libation on the Temple Altar (Yerushalmi Succah 8:1).

As the book of Jonah relates, God told the prophet to go to Nineveh to tell the people to repent, but not wanting to carry out this mission, Jonah tried to flee to Tarshish, taking a boat from Yaffo. The latter is none other than the ancient Israeli Mediterranean harbor-town of Yaffo besides which the great metropolis of Tel Aviv has sprung up in modern times. The exact identity of Tarshish is the subject of considerable discussion: While some associate it with Tarsus , the city in Cilicia in the present-day Mersin province of Turkey , others think it may have been Crete (cf. Genesis 1:4). Elsewhere in TaNaCh Tarshish is the name of a great sea (Daniel 10:6 etc.) as well as that of the gem aquamarine (Ex. 39:13). Nineveh , the sinful city to which Jonah was sent, was a very important city in ancient Assyria located on the east bank of the Tigris in modern-day Mosul (N. Iraq/Kurdistan).

There could be no better guide into the mysteries of Yonah than Rabbi Eliezer the Great in ch 10 of the Midrash named after him (Pirkey d'Rabbi Eliezer):-

Why did Jonah flee? First God sent him to restore the boundary of the kingdom of Israel and his words were fulfilled. Next He sent him to Jerusalem to prophesy its destruction, but the people repented and God relented and did not destroy it - and people called Jonah a false prophet. The third time, He sent him to Nineveh, but Jonah argued within himself: "I know this people are close to repenting, and if they do and God relents, He will send His anger against Israel. Not only will the Israelites say I am a false prophet but so will the nations of the world. I will flee to a place in connection with which His glory is nowhere mentioned (=the sea). " Jonah went down to Yaffo but could not find a boat - the boat he eventually took was already two days' voyage from Yaffo in order to test Jonah. What did God do? He sent a storm-wind that brought the boat back to Yaffo. Jonah saw and rejoiced in his heart, saying, "Now I know that my way is right". When the sailors told Jonah they were going to the remote sea islands of Tarshish, he said "I will go with you". Jonah happily hired the boat. After one day at sea the boat was encompassed by storm-winds. All the other boats were going to and fro on a calm sea, but the boat Jonah went in was in dire trouble, "so that the ship seemed likely to be wrecked" (Jonah 1:4).

Pirkey d'Rabbi Eliezer continues: 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.

The Midrash continues: Rabbi Tarphon says, The fish had been prepared to swallow Jonah since the six days of creation. HE ENTERED ITS MOUTH LIKE A MAN WALKING INTO A GREAT SYNAGOGUE [i.e. the whole mystery of being swallowed by the fish is bound up with the mystery of prayer and spiritual devotion]. The two eyes of the fish were like radiant glass windows. Rabbi Meir says that a precious jewel hung in the belly of the fish radiating to Jonah like the midday sun, showing him everything in the sea and the depths of the earth. Of this it says, "Light is sown for the righteous" (Psalms 97:11). The fish said to Jonah, Don't you know that today it is my turn to be eaten by Leviathan?" Jonah said: "Take me to him". Jonah said to Leviathan, "For your sake I have come down to see your dwelling-place, because in the future I am destined to tie a rope around your tongue and raise you up to slaughter you for the great feast of the Tzaddikim". Jonah showed Leviathan the seal of Abraham (the sign of the Covenant, his circumcision). Leviathan saw and fled two days' distance from Jonah.

The Midrash goes on: Jonah now said to the fish, "I saved you from Leviathan: now show me everything in the sea and the depths of the earth." [The Midrash now relates how the fish took Jonah on a kind of grand underwater world tour in a live submarine.] The fish showed him the great river-source of the Ocean, as it says, "The depth encompasses me" (Jonah 2:6). He showed him the Red Sea through which Israel passed, as it says, "the reeds (SOUF) were wrapped about my head" (ibid.) He showed him the breakers of the sea from which the waves go forth, as it says, "all Your billows and Your waves passed over me" (v 4). He showed him the pillars and foundations of the earth (v 7) and he showed him Gehennom, as it says, "You brought my life up from destruction", and he showed him the lowest pit of hell, as it says, "From the belly of hell I cried out and You heard my voice" (v 3). He showed him the Temple of God, as it says, "I went down to the ends of the mountains" (v 7). He showed him the Evven Shesiyah ("Foundation Stone") fixed in the depths beneath the Sanctuary, and the sons of Korach standing praying on it. The fish said to Jonah, "You are standing under God's Temple : pray and you will be answered". Jonah prayed.. But he was not answered until he said, "What I have vowed I will fulfill" (v 10) - "My vow to bring up Leviathan and slaughter him before You I will fulfill on the day of Israel 's salvation". God immediately made a sign for the fish to vomit Jonah out onto the dry land (v 11).

The Midrash of R. Eliezer concludes: The sailors saw all the great signs and wonders that God performed for Jonah and immediately rose and cast their gods into the sea, as it says, "They that guard lying vanities forsake their loyalty" (2:9). They returned to Yaffo and went up to Jerusalem and circumcised themselves.. And they made vows and proceeded to fulfill them, going to bring their wives and all their families to fear the God of Jonah (Pirkey d'Rabbi Eliezer ch 10).


Through the weave of Rabbi Eliezer's Midrash we can see how the story of Jonah is an allegory of Israel among the Seventy Nations, and how the terrible global storm sent by God as a result of Israel 's flight from Him into sin eventually brings Jonah and all the nations to know and fear God. With many contemporary world "leaders" repeating regularly that "all of the world's problems are rooted in the Middle East problem (= Israel ), and if that can be solved, everything else will be solved", we clearly see how God's "dove" (=Yonah, cf. Song of Songs 2:14) remains until today at the very center of the global storm.

Another dimension of the prophecy of Jonah is brought out in the Holy Zohar (Vayakhel 199a ff). 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, God 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" (Jonah 1:8). "What work have you done in this world - confess to God 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" (Jonah 2:3). 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 God will revive the dead. "He has swallowed up death for ever" (Isaiah 25:8) - "And God spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah out onto the dry land" (Jonah 2:11). And in this fish there are remedies for the whole world.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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