Jonah and the Whale

EveJonahry year on Yom Kippur, Yonah Hanavi briefly flashes into our lives at Yaffo and leaves us at the gates of Nineveh. A mysterious personage, he appears only once in the Tanach (besides in Sefer Yonah) when Hashem mercifully restores lost territories to the wicked Yeravam II in accordance with a prophecy of Yonah: “He restored the border of Israel from the coming to Chamas to the sea of the plain, according to the word of Hashem G-d of Yisroel, which He spoke by the hand of his servant Yonah, son of Amitai, the prophet, who was from Gat-Chefer.”

Who was this courageous prophet?

Concern for his People

The Gemara (Taanis 17a) tells us that Yonah lived after the time of Dovid and Shlomo. The medrash (Shochar Tov 26:7) pinpoints his identity even closer, saying that he was a son of the woman of Tzarfas who sheltered Eliyahu during the terrible drought in the time of Achav, experiencing the miracle of the flour container and cruse of oil that never emptied until rain returned to the land.

The Mishnas Rabbi Eliezer (8) says further, that Yonah went on to become a talmid of Eliyahu Hanavi. Now we come to the story of Sefer Yonah and are amazed that such a devout person could attempt to escape obeying Hashem’s express command. How did Yonah expect to flee from Hashem when no place on earth is empty of His presence?

The Mechilta deRabi Yishmael (Parshas Bo, introduction) asks these questions, first explaining how he thought he could escape from Hashem and then his motives for doing so. Even though there is nowhere a person can hide from Hashem, says the Mechilta, Yonah said to himself, “I will go outside the land where the Shechinah does not reveal itself.” And what was his reason for fleeing?

He said, “Since the non-Jews are more inclined to repent [than Jews], I might be causing Yisroel to be condemned.” This, the Mechilta continues, is like a slave who said, “I will run away to the cemetery where my master cannot follow me,” but his master said to him, “I have other non-Jewish slaves like you [who will pursue you].”

In similar vein, Yonah said, “I will go outside the land where the Shechinah does not reveal itself,” but the Holy One said to him, “I have other agents like you as it is said, ‘And Hashem hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Yonah 1:4).

According to one opinion in the Mechilta, Yonah’s intent was not to flee from Hashem, which is impossible, but to commit suicide: “Rabbi Nosson says, Yonah made his voyage only in order to drown himself in the sea as it says, ‘And he said to them, Take me up and throw me into the sea’” (Yonah 1:12). The Zohar says that Yonah indeed died after the sailors threw him into the sea, and Hashem brought him back to life: “When he was thrown into the sea, his soul flew from him and rose to the throne of glory and was judged before Him. He (Hashem) returned his soul to him and he entered the mouth of that fish.”

The Medrash Eicha says that Yonah’s presentiment that Nineveh’s repentance would boomerang on the Jews indeed came true at the time of the Churban. Commenting on the verse, “Woe to her rebelling and becoming defiled, to the oppressing city (ir hayonah)” (Amos 3:1), the medrash says that Yerushalayim should have learnt from “the city ofYonah” (fromNineveh) how to repent. Thus, Hashem complains, “I sent one prophet toNineveh and he brought her to repentance, yet how many prophets did I send to Yisroel in Yerushalayim!”

A Historical Basis

The Malbim gives a historical basis to Yonah’s reluctance to help the people of Nineveh. He understood that encouraging the city of Nineveh, capital of Ashur, to improve their ways could eventually cause great harm to Yisroel, since Ashur was destined to grow into a powerful empire that would destroy and exile the Ten Tribes of Yisroel.

Indeed, starting in about 3187, Tiglathpileser of Ashur seized the lands of Zevulun and Naftoli and exiled them. Some time later, Shalmanaser V of Ashur exiled Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh, and finally, in 3205, Sargan II of Ashur exiled the rest of the Ten Tribes. The northern state of Yisroel ceased to exist.

Yonah thought that a good way to forestall this terrible prognosis would be to nip Ashur in the bud by letting Ninevehperish of its sins and shrivel on the vine. Whatever explanation there is for Yonah’s reluctance to help Nineveh, the common denominator of them all was that he wanted, as it were, to commit a sin for the sake of heaven. He was willing to cripple his own spirituality in order to prevent harm coming to his beloved people.

Despite Yonah’s idealism, the Mechilta is adamant that his placing of Yisroel’s interests before those of Hashem was a grave mistake. Because Yonah “insisted on the honor due to the son without insisting on the honor due to the father,” says the Mechilta; he was punished by losing his powers of prophecy. Thus it says (Yonah 3:1) that after the fish coughed him up on the dry land, “The word of Hashem came to Yonah a second time,” hinting that, “He spoke with him a second time, but did not speak with him a third time.”

Nonetheless, the Medrash Shochar Tov insists that Yonah ultimately reached spiritual heights few people dream of: “He was an absolute tzaddik, he was purified by the fish swallowing him and in the depths of the seas, and he did not die and entered while alive in his glory to Gan Eden.

Pharaoh Repents Again

Once Yonah fled, Hashem increased his nisayon by making it seem that He was miraculously assisting him on his way. Pirkei deRabi Eliezer describes how this happened:

“When Yonah went down to Yaffo, he found no boat there to embark on. The boat that Yonah embarked on was two days out in order to test Yonah. What did the Holy One do? He brought a storm upon it in the sea and returned it to Yaffo. Yonah saw, rejoiced in his heart, and said, ‘Now I know that my way is straight before me.’”

The Otzar Midrashim (221) writes that after Yonah was thrown off the boat and swallowed by a fish, his clothes and hair were burnt by the animal’s internal heat. This has a strange parallel in a report dating from 1891, claiming that while a whaling boat was attacking an eighty foot long sperm whale, one of the whalers, James Bartley, landed up inside its mouth. His shipmates caught the whale and while they were skinning it and cutting it to pieces, they were surprised to find him inside, unconscious, but alive. As a 1914 version of the tale describes it, “Suddenly the sailors were startled by something in the stomach which gave spasmodic signs of life. Inside was found the missing sailor, James Bartley, doubled up and unconscious. He was placed on deck and treated to a bath of sea-water which soon revived him, but his mind was not clear and he was placed in the captain’s quarters.” An unfortunate side effect of his experience was that his skin and hair were bleached permanently white by the whale’s gastric juices, and he was blind the rest of his life.

After Yonah’s ordeal inside the fish, which showed him many wonders of the oceans en route (Pirkei deRabi Eliezer), Yonah makes his way to Nineveh. This ancient city is presently an immense sea of ruins on the banks of the Tigris River, opposite the modern Iraqi city of Mosul.

In memory of its past history, one of Nineveh’s two major mounds is named Nab Ynus, the prophet Yonah, and is home to a Muslim shrine devoted to his memory.

It is clear from Sefer Yonah that a chief mover behind the people’s repentance was the king of Nineveh, and according to Pirkei deRabi Eliezer (43) this was with good reason since he was none other than Pharaoh of Egypt who had once saved his own life by repenting in the Red Sea. Afterwards he became king of Nineveh and now he ordered his people to repent drastically.

Real or Fake?

You could argue that our custom of reading Sefer Yonah to inspire us to repentance seems to be based on the Talmud Bavli, because according to the Yerushalmi, their repentance was farcical and hardly a model for us to follow.

The Bavli (Taanis 8b) emphasizes how Hashem was impressed not by the fasting and sackcloth of the Ninevites, but, “By their deeds, that they had turned from their evil way” (Yonah 3:10). It also explains that when the king ordered that they turn away from the “violence (chamas) that was in their hands” (3:8), this means that if a person had stolen a beam and used it to build a house, he would tear down the whole house and return the beam to its owner.”

The Midrash Yonah adds that this applied to a royal palace worth a huge amount and in addition, if they had a vine or tree that grew from a stolen sapling, they uprooted it and returned it, and if a stolen thread was mixed in the weave of a garment, they ripped the garment and took it out. If someone bought a house from someone and found hidden treasure inside, each one would argue that he was not deserving of taking it.

Indeed, the Gemara tells us that the inspiration of Nineveh is utilized not only on Yom Kippur, but on every public fast. As the Mishnah (Taanis 2:1) says, an elder would exhort the people that Hashem regarded not their sack and fasting but their deeds.

On the other hand, the Yerushalmi says that Nineveh’s repentance was a shallow deception, since the verse emphasizes that they returned, “The violence that was in their hands.” “Said Rabbi Yochanan, that which was in the palms of their hands they returned, while that which was in a chest, box, or cupboard, they did not return.” In addition, the Yerushalmi says that their starving of the animals was a brazen tactic to, as it were, force Hashem’s hand – if he did not have mercy on them, they too would not have mercy on their animals.

Whether their repentance was sincere or not, according to Pirkei deRabi Eliezer (43), it never lasted. “For forty years He delayed His anger for them corresponding to the forty days he sent Yonah to Nineveh, and afterwards they returned to their original deeds to a very great extent and were swallowed like the dead in the bottom most pit.” All that is left of their repentance is something even more precious than Nineveh’s temporary survival – the lesson that even a small step towards Hashem has greater consequences than we can imagine.

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