Chazal to focus our attention on the reading of the entire
Book of Yona. Why did our Sages see fit to choose this
particular reading as the gates of mercy are about to close?
There are those who suggest that the answer lies in the theme
of the teshuva (repentance) of the city of Ninveh. However,
if this were the case, it would have been sufficient to
stipulate the reading of only chapter 3; this reason alone
does not justify the reading of the entire book.
It would seem that the intention of our Sages was to
place at the center of our attention Yona and his actions,
rather than the teshuva of Ninveh, and for this reason the
reading is not limited to the latter subject. There seems to
be something in the conflict between Yona and God which is
worthy of the attention of the Jewish People immediately prior
to the Ne'ila prayer. Likewise, the intention seems to be an
emphasis not on ideas which pertain to prophets and other
lofty souls, but rather on basic issues which apply to all of
us and are particularly significant on Yom Kippur.
What, then, is this basic issue? A cursory glance at the
four chapters comprising Sefer Yona, with a view to finding
the basic framework of the story, reveals the following
sequence: Yona's escape from his destiny, his escape from God,
and his escape from himself. We may follow this sequence with
the aid of the key words, "kum" (get up) and "red" [go down"],
which are expressions of approaching the Divine mission and
distancing oneself from it, respectively. (It should be borne
in mind that for a prophet, this approach or withdrawal is
unequivocal, owing to the clarity of the mission as revealed
in the prophecy. The same is not the case for a regular
individual, for whom the unequivocal mission appears complex
Get Up and Call / He Descended and Fell Asleep
As the Sefer opens, the mission transmitted to the
prophet is presented to us, in God's words: "Get up, go to
Ninveh, the great city, and call out against it, for their
evil has risen before Me" (1:2).
"Get up" and "call" are the two verbs expressing
awakening and movement towards the mission. Indeed the
narrative continues, "And Yona got up..." (1:3). Here begins
Yona's flight from God, from his destiny and from himself.
God sends him eastward (to Ninveh), and he flees westward (via
Yaffo, to Tarshish): "And he WENT DOWN to Yaffo and found a
ship... and he DESCENDED INTO IT to go with it to Tarshish
from before God" (1:3).
The great wind and furious storm, the terror of the
sailors and their shouts and desperate actions all leave Yona
unaffected, and do not halt his descent: "And Yona DESCENDED
into THE RECESSES of the ship, and he lay down and fell
asleep" (1:5). Descent after descent within descent. The
flight from God also involves physio-topographical descent, as
well as isolation from the surrounding events, and the sleep
of escape from reality.
God sends many messengers, and when the powers of nature
- the wind, the sea and all their activity - fail to intrude
on Yona's isolation, God sends an additional messenger, the
captain of the ship, who wakes Yona from his slumber and
attempts to return him to his destined path: "Why are you
sleeping? GET UP AND CALL to your God" (1:6). [The words of
the captain of the ship are in marked contrast to Yona's
actions in descending and falling asleep following God's
command, "Get up, go to Ninveh ... and call to it."] But even
this dialogue fails to check Yona's slide, and it becomes
apparent even to the sailors around him that "he was escaping
from before God, for he had told them" (1:10).
The flight continues: "And he said to them, 'Lift me up
and lower me into the sea...'" (1:12). And after serious
deliberation, "They lifted up Yona and lowered him into the
sea..." (1:15). ["R. Natan said: It was Yona's intention to
die in the sea. Similarly, we find in the case of other
forefathers and prophets, that they gave up their lives for
Israel..." (Yalkut Shimoni, 550).]
"And God appointed a great fish to swallow Yona, and Yona
was in the bowels of the fish for three days and three
nights. And Yona prayed to the Lord his God from the
bowels of the fish, and he said, 'I have CALLED... TO
Here, from the depths of the sea, from the stomach of the
fish, at the very climax of the escape, comes the turning
point: Yona calls out to God. "You have brought up my life
from the abyss, O Lord my God" (2:7).
"And God spoke to the fish and it spat Yona onto dry
land" (2:11). Once again Yona stands with his two feet on the
ground, at the same point where he started: "And God's word
came to Yona a second time saying, 'Get up, go to Ninveh, the
great city, and call to it...'" (3:1-2). And indeed, this
time, "And Yona got up and went to Ninveh as God had
commanded, and Ninveh was a great city ... of three day's
journeying. And Yona began to enter the city one day's
journey, and he called..." (3:3-4).
Yona's call works wonders. "And God saw their actions
... and God reconsidered the evil which He had spoken to
perform against them, and He did not perform it" (3:10).
Yona the prophet is not party to the joy over his
success: "And the matter was very bad to Yona, and he was
displeased. And he prayed to God and said, '... For this
reason I tried before to flee to Tarshish ... And now, take my
soul from me, for I prefer to die than to live' ... And Yona
went out of the city..." (4:1-5).
Yona fulfills his mission and hurries away from the city.
It is difficult for him to remain there; he is still haunted
by profound doubts, as well as the experience of his recent
flight from God. And so he leaves. "And he made himself a
sukka and sat beneath it in the shade, waiting to see what
would become of the city" (4:5).
The crux of the turbulent conflict still lies ahead of
him, and this is where it takes place - to the east of Ninveh.
Man's flight from his destiny and mission as defined by
the needs of the generation and the nation is a common human
phenomenon. It involves descent after descent, and leads to
escaping from reality.
A graphic summary of this, describing Yona's geographic-
topographic descent, corresponding in this case also to his
spiritual fluctuations, reveals the symmetry of the Sefer and
represents a significant symbol which helps us to understand
the process. (The graph that arises is in the form of a bird
- a dove [Yona] - in flight. Yona first receives his call and
rises; then he descends to the boat and keeps descending
further and further; he proceeds to return to land and rise to
his call; finally, he is dejected and sits outside the city.)
One of the most important and ubiquitous themes of the
Yamim Nora'im, which also threads its way through the story of
Yona, is that of Divine Providence. We have already mentioned
above that God sends many messengers, some revealed and others
concealed. Each speaks to man in its own language. We need
to ensure that our ears are open and ready to hear and absorb
In four places in Sefer Yona there is an emphasis on
Divine intervention, with the use of the word "va-yema'en"
(and He appointed). A short review of these circumstances
gives rise to some thoughts on the subject of Divine
"And the Lord appointed a fish..." (2:1)
"And the Lord God appointed a plant..." (4:6)
"And God appointed a worm..." (4:7)
"And God appointed a strong east wind..." (4:8)
The words "He appointed" indicate Divine intervention in
a concealed fashion. Each of these phenomena appear
incidentally, as it were, in Yona's vicinity.
There is a hierarchy of size and power amidst this
collection of messengers: a great fish, a tree, a worm, a
strong wind. There is also a variety of types of creation,
from the point of view of the relationship with man. Their
selection is not coincidental; their interrelationship points
to a clear trend. God recruits various different creatures
and creations as His messengers to man with a view to
returning him to his mission, to informing him of God's word:
inanimate objects, vegetation and animals; from the sea, from
the land and from the air. All are fulfilling the will of
their Creator. Encountering this multi-faceted reality
crammed with events, we need to ask ourselves - what is this
showing us? What is the significance of this?
We have highlighted above some general themes of Divine
Providence which would seem to arise from the text. It would,
moreover, appear that even the very choice of some or other
specific creature to serve as a messenger of the Divine also
has significance in the framework of the mission. Let us
attempt to explore this possibility with regard to one of the
four messengers listed above - the fish.
Our attention is drawn to the particular language used in
describing Ninveh, where the text does not stop at mentioning
the name of the offending city but takes the trouble to
present it together with a description: "Ninveh - the great
city." Elsewhere, the text elaborates even further: "And
Ninveh was a great city to the Lord, (measuring) three days'
A similar description is to be found in the case of the
fish: "And God appointed a GREAT FISH to swallow Yona, and
Yona was in the bowels of the fish THREE DAYS AND THREE
These two emphases, seemingly redundant, create a
peculiar parallel: the great Ninveh, three days' journey =
great fish, three days.
An interesting solution to this parallel came to me via
Eliakim ben-Menachem's commentary on Sefer Yona (cited in the
Da'at Mikra commentary, 1:2 and footnote 7): Ninveh, which was
situated on the banks of the Euphrates river, was signified in
ancient Ashuric script by the symbol of a fish within a house.
It may be that the historical source for this symbol was
connected to the fact that Ninveh was a source and 'home' of
fancy fish, and this was a well recognized symbol of its
renown. The name Ninveh may well have been chosen because of
this symbol: "Neveh (home) shel Nun (fish, in Aramaic)".
In light of the above, the appointment of the fish is
especially significant in the attempt to return Yona to his
mission. God is saying, as it were, to Yona: You are fleeing
from the 'home of the fish' (Ninveh), the great city of three
days' journeying, but you will return there via a fish which
will serve you as a house for three days. And, indeed, from
the midst of the great fish, after three days, Yona turns
towards the great city of Ninveh, measuring three days'
What is Evil?
The theme of evil appears several times throughout the
Sefer, in different contexts and with varying significance.
At times the reference is to bad events - catastrophes; at
other times the reference is to evil deeds. Sometimes 'evil'
appears as a punishment, other times it is a painful warning.
God, Yona, the sailors and the text all use 'evil,' and an
analysis of this aspect of the story will shed further light
on its meaning.
In explaining the reason for Yona's mission, the text
teaches, "Go up to it for their evil has come up before Me"
(1:2). From this point onwards, the text turns on the actions
of the people of Ninveh, and the chain of events which
subsequently take place. God, Yona and the people of Ninveh
all play a part.
The people of Ninveh, who hear Yona's call to teshuva,
take a number of steps, all of which are aimed at the ultimate
goal of repentance - "And let them return, each person from
his evil path and from the violence which is in his hands."
The text summarizes this process in the following words:
"And the Lord saw their actions, that they had returned from
their evil path, and the Lord reconsidered the evil which He
had spoken to perform against them, and He did not perform it"
(3:10). The people of Ninveh apparently understand that their
actions are evil and that they need to change their behavior.
God accepts their teshuva and puts aside the evil which He had
intended to unleash on them. But how does Yona see these
"And the matter was very bad to Yona, and he was
displeased ... 'For this reason I previously fled to
Tarshish, for I knew that You are a kind and merciful
God, long suffering and full of compassion, and
reconsidering the evil.'" (4:1-2)
Yona has a different view of what has taken place, and
does not join God and the inhabitants of Ninveh in their
evaluation of the process as having reached a successful
conclusion. He sees the teshuva of Ninveh and its acceptance
by God as the opposite - a great evil; to the point where the
actual events make him leave the city and ask to die. There,
outside the city, Yona sits under the shade of the plant which
God appoints for him: "To be a shade over his head, to
alleviate his suffering ['ra'ato' - literally, 'his evil']"
Earlier on, while in the ship, Yona participates in a
similar exchange with the ship's personnel. Among other
measures adopted by the sailors in the face of the rising
storm, the text records: "And they said each one to his
neighbor, 'Let us go and draw lots, so that we may know
because of whom this evil has come upon us'" (1:7). When the
lots indicate Yona, "They said to him, 'Tell us because of
whom this evil has come upon us.'" When the sailors use the
word 'evil,' they mean the great storm which is threatening
their lives. Yona, in response to their questions, advises
them: "Lift me up and lower me into the sea ... For I know
that it is because of me that this great storm has come upon
you" (1:12). For him this is not an 'evil;' it is a natural
phenomenon which is merely serving its purpose.
This distinction may not be all that significant in its
own right, but it takes on a more profound importance in the
context of the central theme. At the end of the Sefer, God's
appointing the plant to alleviate Yona's suffering is
juxtaposed to His reconsidering the evil which He had said
that He would perform to the people of Ninveh. This is
dramatically expressed in the rhetorical question: "You had
mercy on the plant ... Should I not have mercy on Ninveh, the
great city, in which there are more than one hundred and
twenty thousand people ... and many cattle?" (4:11). This is
reminiscent of the midrash's account of God's question to the
angels while the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea: "My
creatures are drowning, and you are reciting praise?!"
In this way God wants to show Yona that his system of
concepts - good and evil, reward and punishment - requires
rethinking. When man flees from his destiny, his basic moral
conceptual system is corrupted, and he assumes a limited
perception of reality, building himself a system of good and
evil which is different from that of God and that which
affects those around him.
But it is not coincidental that the text leaves this
central question open. Throughout the Sefer we seek the
answer: Why does Yona flee in the first place? Why does he
not want the people of Ninveh to repent? The answer is not
given. A person is, by nature, full of doubts, internal
battles, competing considerations and partial failures. But
correct decisions along the way, and his chances of ultimate
success, always depend on a correct perception of the goal,
the mission. Someone who flees from his mission and destiny
will find himself at a dead-end at every step of the way, and
will discover himself having mercy on a plant while ignoring
the good of fellow humans and animals.