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The Jewish sages have given four predominant answers to the question of why we read Jonah on Yom Kippur. The first is that the book reminds us of God’s infinite mercy. S.Y. Agnon, in his work Days of Awe, quotes the Psikta D’Rav Kahana, which says: “Israel said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, if we repent, will you accept it?’ God responded, ‘Would I accept the repentance of the people of Ninveh, and not yours?'” We read Jonah to be reminded that if God could forgive Ninveh, of course God can forgive us.
The second Rabbinic response is related to Yom Kippur’s most profound theme–that of Teshuva, repentance. The second Mishnah in Ta’anit, which recounts how the Jewish people should observe fast days, quotes the deeds of the people of Ninveh. They are a paradigm of repentance, a model for us as we struggle through the day.
Third, the Book of Jonah also serves as a reminder that the entire world, and all of its natural forces, are in God’s hand. The wind, the kikayon plant, the sea, and the great fish are all vehicles of God in this story. These all serve to reinforce Psalm 24, which we read on Kol Nidrei night, and which states that “The earth is God’s.”
Finally, according to the Mishnah in Brachot 6a, Mincha time is believed to be especially poignant for having prayers answered: “One should always take special care about the afternoon prayer. For even Elijah was favorably heard only while offering his afternoon prayer.” As we read of Jonah being answered from the belly of the fish, we are reminded that we too can be saved, even as the day begins to wane.
Book of Contradictions
But there is something more at play in this little book, which, though only 47 verses long, mentions the word “big” 14 times. It is a book of contradictions, which ends in an unanswered question. In her work “The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “The book of Jonah invites interpretation from the first verse to the last; but its elusive meanings are never fully netted. There is no conclusive answer to its questions.”
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