Why do we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?
This is not a new question. There is a mini library of scholarship ancient and modern on this question. However, there is also a previous question to be asked, upon which there is another library of scholarship: What is the book of Jonah?
The Book of Jonah was summed up nicely by the Veggie Tales folks: Jonah was a prophet, oooh oooh/ But he never really got it, sad but true. and if you watch it you can spot it, a-doodley-doo!/ he did not get the point!
However, this brings in its wake the further question: Why are all the human characters vegetables, and yet the animal characters are still animals?
So there is still room for us to ask the question: What is the book of Jonah? Is it a book of prophecy like Isaiah or Jeremiah? Is it a narrative like Samuel or Kings? Is it something else?
It is hard to argue that it is a prophetic book in the tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel; or even the minor prophets such as Hosea or Obadiah. There is only one prophetic passage in the book, which is only five words long in Hebrew, and this prophecy only comes up in the third of four chapters. The message is: עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת/ “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
That is it. Jonah walks the length of Nineveh delivers this message and then leaves to go sulk in the desert. Most of the book is spent following Jonah not delivering this message. He runs away from God, he is thrown into the ocean. He is swallowed by a fish. A real big fish. He asks God for forgiveness and is deposited on the shore. Then God again asks him, nicely, to go deliver a message to Nineveh. The author never tells us what it is that Nineveh did that was so bad—which gives the Veggitales folks license to tell us that they were fishslappers—however, as soon as Jonah tells them his five words עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”—they all immediately stop whatever awfulness they were doing and immediately repent. Jonah then slinks off to the desert to sulk over the fact that God is not going to wipe them out.
To round out the story, God makes some sort of a shade tree or vine, or something called a קיקיון grow which Jonah enjoys, since it is the desert. Then God brings about a worm to kill the plant which pains Jonah no end, and God finishes off with “See, that’s why!” and that is all.
It is not surprising then that many scholars understand the book as in way some way humorous. They are not in agreement, however, on what genre of humor. Is it a parody? But then what exactly is it parodying? What previous text is it skewing in a comedic way? One possibility is that it is a parody of Psalms literature. When Jonah is sitting in the whale he cries out to God to save him. He does not repent of his running away from God but rather very poetically whines that he is in dire straits and God should save him from those straits.
In my trouble I called to the Lord,
And He answered me;
From the belly of Sheol I cried out,
And You heard my voice.
You cast me into the depths,
Into the heart of the sea,
The floods engulfed me;
All Your breakers and billows
Swept over me.
I thought I was driven away
Out of Your sight:
Would I ever gaze again
Upon Your holy Temple?
The waters closed in over me,
The deep engulfed me.
Weeds twined around my head.
I sank to the base of the mountains;
The bars of the earth closed upon me forever.
Yet You brought my life up from the pit,
O Lord my God!
When my life was ebbing away,
I called the Lord to mind;
And my prayer came before You,
Into Your holy Temple.
They who cling to empty folly
Forsake their own welfare,
But I, with loud thanksgiving,
Will sacrifice to You;
What I have vowed I will perform.
Deliverance is the Lord’s! (Jonah 2:4-10)
This, of course, works and God commands or speaks to the fish (the verb is ויאמר which is speak) and the fish vomits Jonah out.
Jonah’s hyperbolic performance: “When my life was ebbing away,/ I called the Lord to mind; / And my prayer came before You, / Into Your holy Temple,” followed by God’s immediate response might be intended as a parody of the Psalm-like prayers and their supposed or real efficacy.
On the other hand, there are scholars who see it as satire, or irony, or even situation comedy—the All-Powerful God comes to a nobody, a nebbish, with a Divine mission. The nebbish doesn’t even stick around to argue, he just leaves, and so on.
This is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Scrolls” in which he recounts the binding of Isaac:
And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, “I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I must sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on,” And Isaac trembled and said, “So what did you say? I mean when He brought this whole thing up?”
“What am I going to say?” Abraham said. “I’m standing there at two am in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?”
Jonah takes the route that Sarah suggested to Abraham: “How doth thou know it was the Lord and not, say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes…” and hightailed it out of there.
The scholars, of course, bring enough proofs and counter-proofs for their different comedic readings that the whole exercise becomes tedious and dull.
Well, then, now that we have not answered the base question: What kind of book, or what genre is the book of Jonah, we can comfortably move on to the second question. Why was the story incorporated into the afternoon service on Yom Kippur?
It could be that the Sages, when it came to minchah, just wanted to keep people’s attention, so they decided to read the book of Jonah—a story which would bemuse or confuse but not put them to sleep. This is not a crazy suggestion. The Mishnah (Yoma chapter one) tells us that on yom kippur night when the high priest was supposed to stay awake all night, the younger priests would read him from Job, Ezra, Chronicles, or Daniel—books with a sustained narrative, or enough interest to keep the high priest engaged and awake.
The Torah reading that we just read (after the morning service) is powerful—it is the annual cleansing of the Tabernacle, and the sending out of the Israelites’ sins on the scapegoat. If the ritual is not done properly the high priest will die—and Israel’s sins will not be cleansed.
A strong theory about why the traditional afternoon service reading is what it is—is that it happens to be the chapter in Leviticus which immediately follows the morning reading. Nothing more powerful than that.
The haftarah (prophetic reading) we just chanted is probably the most radical critique of empty piety and vacuous ritual in all of prophetic literature. (Isaiah 57-58) It could be that the Sages thought we could do with some light entertainment for the afternoon service.
However, I want to suggest that Sages chose the book of Jonah for a more serious reason. It has to do with the strategic timing of the reading of Jonah as we draw closer to the end of the day, and also with the first scene in the story.
There is no Torah reading during the ne’ilah or closing service today. The afternoon service reading is the last reading. It is the reading before we take this day on the road. That is, it is the last Torah reading before we pack up our collective experiences and bring them out of this collective space and place them squarely in the public domain of our daily lives.
When put in this context, the first scene of the book of Jonah is striking. Jonah doesn’t say a single word for the first eight verses of the book. This means that God appears, God commissions Jonah, Jonah flees from God, he goes to Jaffa, he finds a ship and pays the fare, Jonah boards a ship to Tarshish, the ship is caught in a deadly storm, and while they fight for their lives and pray to their gods—Jonah falls asleep in the hold of the ship. All without a recorded word from Jonah.
In order to understand how striking this opening or commissioning scene is, we should compare it to the commissioning scenes of other prophets. When God appears to Moses at the burning bush and calls out to him, Moses’ immediate response is Hineni / here I am—and while Moses tried to wriggle out of that initial hineni, he eventually puts on the mantle of the leader of Israel and agrees to tell the most powerful person in the world to do the one thing that he least wants to do.
When Samuel is initially called by God he is a child in the Tabernacle in Shiloh and thinks that it is Eli the High Priest who is calling him. Still his answer is the same hineni. When Eli figures out that Samuel is hearing a call from God, he teaches Samuel to respond by saying: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Isaiah is commissioned in a vision in which he saw God sitting on a lofty throne, surrounded by God’s angelic entourage. Despite the overwhelming awe of the setting (a six-winged angel flies over to Isaiah and touches his lips with a live coal to purify them, among other things), when God asks: “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah immediately answers “Here I am, send me!”
It is this Isaiah’s furious critique of fasting and ritual empty without justice, which we chant during the morning service (though we should probably scream it as he did). Isaiah was fearless it seems. Can you picture the scene? The people of Israel, in their holiday best, feeling really good about themselves, going to the Temple in Jerusalem fasting, bringing their sacrifices; and off to the side of the road is Isaiah screaming at them: “You think this is what God wants? This is an abomination! You thinking your fasting is pleasing to God? Nope. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 1 & 58)
Its pretty clear that Isaiah was not met with a chorus of cheers and people saying: “Oh yeah, you know, he’s right. We should go home.” He was probably met with a wave of abuse. Isaiah probably did not have a great day that Yom Kippur. How many of us would do what Isaiah did?
This image of the fierce prophet is what we are given in the morning reading. Then in the afternoon reading we meet Jonah. God calls Jonah and he doesn’t answer, he doesn’t think about the fact that it is, after all, God calling him, and maybe he should think about it. Jonah bolts. He gets as far as he can from the demand to tell the Ninevites that they are doing evil.
Who is Jonah? Jonah is us. Me and you. When we hear that little “voice of God” which tells us that there is some evil going on (and nowadays there are evils going on every day—racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, atrocities in Burma, in Syria, the Israeli occupation in Palestine, and on and on and on…) we immediately want to run away. We want to change the channel, click some other link, turn the page. We want to run to Jaffa get on a ship and go to sleep.
However, that voice is not going to go away. After the ship and the storm and the whale, Chapter 3 starts exactly the same way that Chapter 1 starts: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it what I tell you.’” Jonah then, very reluctantly goes. He is not happy that he went, but he went.
Jonah is the recognition that when we leave the synagogue after Yom Kippur is over, when we leave this beautiful bubble of righteous resolutions to change the world, to do the good and the just—it is really complicated out there. As Ram Dass once said: “If you think you’re enlightened, go home for the holidays.”
Jonah is preparing us to take this experience into the reality of our daily lives, where we would rather end up in the belly of a whale than confront the evil sitting in front of us. However, we also must remember Jonah’s first words, spoken to the sailors who confront him, asking him what he is about. He says: “I am a Hebrew, I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.” He had it in him all the time.
Our path to confronting Nineveh will also entail running away, and trying to just go to sleep, and finding our own whale to swallow us. However, if we dig deep, we can remember what Jonah remembered: “I am a Hebrew, I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land.”
Its complicated but we can get there.