Yom Kippur Mincha – Jonah: A Whale of a Tale

By Jean Gerber and Jonathan Berkowitz


The Yom Kippur Mincha service presents various puzzles. First, why are so few people in shul then to hear a whale of a tale? Second, why is the haftarah the entire book of Jonah (with three verses from Micah added on)? This small book, written during Second Temple Times, never mentions Yom Kippur, nor the fast required of Jews. The only people fasting are the citizens and livestock of the pagan city of Nineveh.


Since we both enjoy puzzles—one of us much more than the other—we offer two possible solutions, one from each of us. First, let’s set the scene.


Like so many other prophets, when Jonah heard that Voice from Heaven he was NOT ready to take on the mantle of prophecy. Without refusing up front because of his “unclean lips”, his unworthiness or his stammer, Jonah immediately skipped town, headed out to sea to the farthest port he could find, perhaps in Spain, but certainly far away from the nagging bat kol (voice from heaven) directing his prophetic mission. He was, to use modern parlance, a real “piece of work.”


So, who was Jonah, anyway? We will ignore commentators who try to link him to a prophet of the same name cited earlier in the Torah. This Jonah was some poor schlub going about his business when suddenly, out of the clear blue, a voice told him, “This is your mission.” It came with no explanation and no link to the sins of Israel. The mission seemed to be directed, not just to a non-Jewish nation, but to an empire that would destroy the Israelite state. But the voice was implacable: “You don’t want to go? You think you can flee from my presence? Think again.”


Even the pagan sailors realized that no one can escape God. At this point Jonah appears to have said little. We learn later that he had thrown a tantrum after the people of Nineveh repented “of their evil ways.” He whined, “Isn’t that just what I said back home, that You, God, are a God of mercy?” We weren’t told that he had said anything back home. Jonah wanted to know why he should do this when he was sure God would reverse His intention to destroy Nineveh.


At the end of the story, God seemed to take Jonah by the shoulders and give him a good shake: Have you learned nothing? Nothing about Repentance? Of Mercy? Get a grip!


Jean’s Observations and Solution


There is one very odd thing about God’s final words.

“You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished in a night. And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons… and also many beasts as well!”


It has always puzzled me why God’s last words about Nineveh concern cattle. Why should we worry about the cows?


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, helps out here. In Parashat Ki Tetzeh, he writes, we are commanded to help our neighbour’s donkey if it has fallen on the road. Earlier in Exodus (23:5) we found out that if it is your enemy’s donkey that has collapsed under its lead, we are commanded to help if we see this mishap, even if its master is our enemy.


Rabbi Sacks writes that there are various opinions about this mitzvah. One says that helping an enemy takes precedent, as it may turn an enemy into a friend. Or as Maimonides pointed out, helping this donkey and owner may save the owner’s life, since being stuck on the road in those days could be dangerous—perhaps not so different from today! Another opinion is that the prevention of suffering to animals is a positive commandment, tzaar ballei hayim.


I think that the last words, “and much cattle,” are an emphatic closing to the tussle between God and the prophet. Jonah didn’t care much about the people of Nineveh; he did care very much about his own comfort, hence his whining about the shriveled plant that had kept the sun off his head. Perhaps he should have cared at the very least about the cattle.


Given our precarious climate exigencies, the loss of animal habitat, the damage being done to our plants, trees and animals that rely on natural landscapes and food chains, we might care more about the natural world around us. As some wise spark remarked, this is the only planet we have. Perhaps what God was saying is—the more care we give the natural world and all its creatures, the more we will care about, and show mercy to, the humans who live in it.


Jonathan’s Observations and Solution:


Let’s look at the more formal language of what Jonah says accusingly to God, “I know that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, with great kindness and have remorse for bringing evil.” Rabbi Nathan Laufer explains that Jonah is quoting selectively from the Thirteen Attributes of God—which we hear many times during our services—as an explanation for why he tried to flee from God.


Laufer suggests that this tale gets us to focus on the universal possibility of repentance, as a complement to the specific particularity of the rest of Yom Kippur. The Jewish people were chosen to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. We are often resistant to being God’s “agent”, so this story might have been a nudge to the Jewish people to repent, just as the non-Jews of Nineveh did. Laufer writes, “Do we engage only with the members of our own particular, tight-knit community, or do we reach out to those outside of our communities to help repair God’s world?”


What is the reason for the postscript from Micah? The story of Jonah is so oblique concerning the Jewish people’s repentance that the message needs to be underlined. The three verses are the epitome of teshuva and include the line “You [God] will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Doesn’t that put an exclamation mark on the lesson!


The Thirteen Attributes, says Maimonides, teach us to be like God, compassionate toward all of God’s creatures. Jonah did not understand this, but we certainly can—with distance and hindsight—when we hear the Yom Kippur Mincha haftarah!