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Why Do We Read Yonah on Yom Kippur?

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

Why Do We Read Yonah on Yom Kippur?[1]

Rabbi Eitan Mayer


The colorful story of Yonah is familiar and well loved. Read annually at Minchah on Yom Kippur, it introduces a prophet who defies God, a fish which swallows him at God’s command, and – perhaps most unusual of all – a city which actually repents when a prophet arrives to warn of impending doom.


            But as we take a closer look at the details of Yonah, strange details jump out at us. To begin with, why does Yonah defy God’s command to journey to Nineveh and warn its inhabitants to repent? Isn’t delivering warnings what prophets do for a living?[2] Later on, when Nineveh repents and God relents, Yonah himself seems to clarify the matter with his protest: “Was this not what I said when I was still back in my land – and that is why I fled to Tarshish! Because I know that You are a God who is compassionate and merciful, slow to anger and great in kindness, repenting of punishment! Now, O God, take my soul from me, for I prefer death to life!” (4:2-3). But this outburst leaves us even more puzzled: Yonah is angry that God is merciful and forgiving?


            The repentance of Nineveh is strange as well. The king declares a general fast, but bizarrely includes the animals of the kingdom in his decree along with the people – as if the grass-munching bovines of Nineveh had sinned and were now being called to repentance. The populace complies, even taking the animal participation to a new level of ludicrousness by dressing their barnyard beasts in sackcloth. Animals which had spent all their days unencumbered by both sin and clothing now assume the one and don the other. One wonders whether the farmers of Nineveh invited their cows to Selikhot services; perhaps they left copies of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s On Repentance in the fields, over which the ruminants could ruminate. What does it mean for animals to repent?


            Finally, why do we read Yonah on Yom Kippur? The usual explanation is that we read it because Yom Kippur is the day of repentance, teshuvah, a central theme in Yonah. But if Chazal chose this story to be a Yom Kippur haftarah because it features teshuvah, many other biblical stories could have done the job. More to the point, why would they have chosen specifically a story about repentant non-Jews when so many narratives showcase the teshuvah of Jews?


            Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is that we read Yonah not as a general paradigm of repentance, but as the answer to a critical question which we often ask ourselves as Yom Kippur approaches: Is our repentance real?


Most of us have experienced trying to break an unwanted habit or ingrained personal pattern. Many of us have tried to change elements of our personalities which we think need improvement, or which we feel are holding us back in life. Most people find that changing themselves even in the short term can be monumentally difficult – so do we really mean it when we confess our sins on Yom Kippur and promise never to return to them? Do we really believe our own Yom Kippur resolutions? And if we don’t – if we acknowledge, with the ghosts of Yom Kippurs past haunting this year’s contrite commitments, that we may well return to the sins of yesteryear – then isn’t our teshuvah meaningless, even hypocritical?


            The prophet Yonah was troubled by this very question. He had no problem with repentance per se, provided that it was sincere and lasting; God ought to forgive those who abandon evil and truly embrace good. What he could not abide was teshuvah which would prove fleeting and therefore, to his mind, counterfeit. Why should God forgive sinners whose repentance would give way to sin as quickly as their fasting gave way to feasting and their sackcloth gave way to the everyday? Feeling regretful and repentant for a few hours means nothing, Yonah insisted, and he refused to participate in such a sham. Moreover, Yonah felt that by arriving in Nineveh and foretelling destruction, he would be actively encouraging precisely the kind of fleeting repentance he found repugnant: How could one expect people to repent sincerely if they were motivated only by the threat of punishment (“Who knows – maybe God will repent of His anger, and we will not be destroyed,” 3:9)? Once the threat had been neutralized, the teshuvah would evaporate as well.


            It was for this reason that after delivering his warning to Nineveh and observing the people’s panicked paroxysm of penitence, Yonah did not simply return home, but instead built himself a hut outside the city “to see what would happen in the city” (4:5). God had forgiven Nineveh already (), and Yonah knew it. He remained, however, because he was waiting to be vindicated – he was waiting for the grim satisfaction of witnessing Nineveh’s return to her old ways.


            Yonah ends with a strange conversation between God and his prophet. To provide shade for Yonah, God caused a plant to grow over his hut. Yonah, we hear, “was exceedingly happy” with the plant (4:6). Shortly, however, God caused a worm to attack the plant, and it quickly shriveled and died. Yonah was despondent over its death, whereupon God turned to him with the question which ends the book: “You cared for the plant, over which you did not toil and which you did not raise; it appeared overnight, and disappeared overnight. And I should not care for Nineveh, the great city, which contains more than 120,000 people who do not know their right from their left, and many animals?” (-11). What is God trying to say? How does His response address Yonah’s argument that ephemeral repentance is illegitimate? And why does He group the people of Nineveh along with their animals?


            The answer is that Yonah was right about one thing, but wrong about another. He was right that the repentance of Nineveh, while sincere for the moment, was childish in its character, motivated not by the desire to achieve closeness with God and worship Him, but by the desire to avoid punishment for the moment. Yonah was right in predicting that the people would soon return to their sinful routines. In the long run, their fasting, prayers, and feelings of contrition would likely prove as meaningful as that of the farm animals who joined them in their teshuvah process.


But Yonah was wrong in thinking that God should reject penitents like these. By providing Yonah with a plant in which he took great pleasure, God was teaching the prophet about His own feelings toward His human creatures. “You loved that plant and mourned its death,” God was telling Yonah, “though you did not raise it and put no work into its growth. But I have taken great pains in raising the tens of thousands of simple human creatures who inhabit Nineveh. Though they may not know right from left, though they may be spiritual simpletons, no more sophisticated in their religious approach than the animals which share the city with them, I love them and take great joy in their lives. It therefore pleases me to spare them when they make whatever effort they can.”


We read Yonah on Yom Kippur not because it focuses on repentance in general, but because it tells a particular story of repentance – a story of teshuvah which is heartfelt in its day, though it may not live to see the next Yom Kippur. The message of Yonah is that we are granted forgiveness on Yom Kippur even if we cannot offer God the exalted teshuvah which his prophet Yonah demanded. We are forgiven if even for just one day, even for just one moment, even motivated by fear rather than love, we truly desire to improve and commit to doing so. For God does not judge us by a cold calculus of our merit, but rather with the mercy and patience of a Creator whose creatures give Him joy.

[1] This article summarizes a much more detailed and thorough treatment in Hebrew by Professor David Henshke in Megadim 29 (Iyyar 5758), pp. 75-90. Interested readers are referred also to the subsequent exchange in Megadim 31.

[2] The best-known explanation, whose source is the Midrash, is that Yonah feared that the repentance of Nineveh would focus attention on the recalcitrance of his own people in the face of prophetic warnings.




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