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Inside Jonah, Inside the Fish

by Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson


Library » Holidays » Yom Kippur » Essays | Subscribe | What is RSS?


On Yom Kippur afternoon we read the Book of Jonah, popularly known as “Maftir Yonah,” the chanting of which has become a coveted Synagogue honor.

This dramatic adventure on high seas is contains within it a very poignant, moving and inspiring story of repentance and reflection.

The story briefly:

G-d summons Jonah to call on the wicked residents of Nineveh to repent, but Jonah seeks escape by boarding a ship bound elsewhere.

A mighty storm at sea was about to break the ship, as the frightened sailors cried, "each man pray to his god." But Jonah lay fast asleep.

The ship captain approached Jonah, "How can you sleep? Arise! Pray to your G-d to save us," as the passengers asked him, "What is your occupation? Where do you come from?"

As an admitted fugitive, Jonah asked to be cast overboard, and the storm subsided. A large fish swallowed him, and he prayed from the watery depths:

"I cried to G-d in distress, and He heard me. From the depth of hell I cried... You cast me into the deep, the heart of the seas; Your waves passed over me. I descended to the bottom of mountains, the earth’s bars closed in on me; yet You raised my life from the pit, O L-rd..."

G-d commanded the fish to spew Jonah unto dry land; he went to Nineveh and caused its people to repent.

The Jonah story relates to "the entire life span of humans in this world." (Zohar Vayakhel p. 199)
But Jonah became frustrated upon seeing that his original threat of doom and destruction did not materialize and Nineveh was indeed spared. Jonah asked to die, "for death is better than my life."

G-d corrects Jonah’s negativity. As Jonah rested near Nineveh, a leafy vine rose to provide him shade and comfort, but the vine withered by morning. Jonah grieved over the loss, and G-d responded: "You pity a plant on which you didn’t labor; it lived a night and perished. Shall I not have mercy and compassion on all of Nineveh’s residents?"

On A Deeper Level

Divinely profound, G-d’s multi-faceted Torah can be appreciated on different dimensions and various levels. In addition to their basic literal interpretation, the Torah stories contain allegoric interpretations with broad spiritual and psychological applications. Besides highlighting a particular person at a specific time in a certain place, the Torah addresses us all directly now, in October 2005, wherever we may be. Indeed, the Jonah story relates to "the entire life span of humans in this world" (Zohar Vayakhel p. 199).

The Soul’s Journey

The name “Jonah” in Hebrew, “Yonah,” literally means a dove. Throughout the Book of Song of Songs, the faithful loving “bride” is compared to a dove, because the dove is forever true and loyal to its mate. Similarly, the essence of our soul remains faithful to G-d, refusing to be led astray by material pleasure and temptation.


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Posted by: john, CA on Oct 11, 2006

does this story promote prostilization because i thought judaism was a non prostilitizing religon

Editor's Comment

Non-Jews, too, have their own set of commandments (see, and must repent if they transgress them. Jonah was NOT attempting to convert them to Judaism.


Torah » The Bible » The Prophets
Holidays » Rosh Hashanah » Essays

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
The horn of a Kosher animal. The Shofar is sounded on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and is intended to awaken us to repentance. Also blown to signify the conclusion of the Yom Kippur holiday.
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
1. A prophet who lived in the 8th century BCE. He is famous for being swallowed by a large fish after refusing to carry out a mission which G-d gave him. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, which recounts the abovementioned story.
Song of Songs
One of the 24 books of the Bible, authored by King Solomon. This book, which ostensibly is a love poem, is an analogy meant to depict the love between G-d and His bride, the Jewish Nation.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
A short reading from the Torah at the conclusion of the Sabbath morning and holiday Torah readings. The one honored with the maftir aliyah then chants the Haftorah -- the reading from the Prophets.