The story of the errant prophet Jonah and his notoriously hungry whale is one of the world’s most beloved Bible stories. Clocking in with just 47 verses, Jonah is one of the shortest books in the Old Testament. So what message in this little book is so important that we read it on Yom Kippur? What does a man – and a fish – have to do with the holiest day in the Jewish calendar?
First, let’s sum up the Book of Jonah:
God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, an Assyrian city near modern-day Mosul, Iran, and warn them of their impending destruction. Instead, Jonah heads to Jaffa and boards a ship bound for Tarshish (probably near Gibraltar). God creates a terrible storm over the ocean, and the sailors are sure that the boat will sink. They toss out all extraneous luggage to lighten the ship’s load and pray to their gods to abate the storm. They draw lots to determine whose actions provoked the sea’s wrath; Jonah literally draws the short straw. He convinces the sailors to throw him overboard into the tempestuous waters, which immediately become calm.
A “big fish” (the Bible uses the words dag gadol, not whale) swallows Jonah whole, and he remains entrapped in the beast’s belly for three days. Jonah prays to God from within the fish and swears to repay Him for his salvation; the fish spews Jonah out onto dry land.
God’s word returns to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh. Jonah undertakes the arduous journey to the foreign city and passes God’s warning to the people. The king of Nineveh removes his royal clothing and instead dons sackcloth and ashes (traditional signs of mourning). He orders every person and animal in the city to fast, mourn, and repent for their sins. God sees their sincerity and forgives the city, and doesn’t destroy Nineveh as He promised Jonah he would.
Jonah is angry that he traveled all the way to Nineveh for seemingly no reason, as the city was not destroyed. He left the city and set up camp to the east to watch what would happen. God grows a kikayon – a large, leafy plant – over Jonah, giving him shade and relief from the burning heat. The next day, God sent a worm to eat through the kikayon and an overheated and exhausted Jonah begs for help or death. God shows Jonah the hypocrisy of being sad over a plant which he neither grew nor watered while expected God to willingly destroy more than one hundred and twenty thousands of Nineveh, who were God’s own children and creations.
Why do we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?
There are several important themes in the story that make it appropriate reading material for the Day of Atonement.
The idea of repentance is so important that it runs through the story twice: Jonah prays for forgiveness for running away from God from within the depths of the fish, and the entire city of Nineveh atones for their past crimes and begs for forgiveness together.
This shows two very important ideas of Yom Kippur – the notions of individual and public repentance. On Yom Kippur, we stand as individuals before God and plead for forgiveness for our personal transgressions. However, almost all our prayers are worded in the plural (forgive us, hear our prayers). Like all the inhabitants of Nineveh gathered together in sackcloth and ashes to repent and plead forgiveness, we as the Jewish people come together to pray as a collective.
We also learn the value of introspection from Jonah’s three days in the fish, and the merits of action over words from Nineveh’s king who commanded all his citizens fast.
It also shows the true reach of God’s all-knowing powers: Jonah tried to shed his prophetic obligations and run away to a different country, miles away from his native Israel. The mission he’s trying to escape involves a far away city packed with hundreds of thousands of people, all of whose sins He knows. Jonah realizes both that he cannot escape God, and that God knows who every single one of His children are. (This is an idea echoed in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which likens the Jewish people approaching God for judgment to sheep passing beneath a shepherd’s staff.)
Wishing you a safe and meaningful Yom Kippur!