Jonah & Yom Kippur

Why do we read the book of Jonah during the Minchah service?

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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.
jonah and yom kippur
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, Minchah 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."

Who is Jonah? The sages disagree. When was this book written, and by whom? Again, disagreement. Did the first two chapters really happen? "There are those who say that it all happened in reality, and those that say that it all occurred in a dream, and in a prophetic vision," writes R' Yosef Kaspi on Jonah 1:1. There is constant tension in the book: between the cities Ninveh and Tarshish, the land and the sea, sleep and wakefulness, up and down, an embracing of God and an evasion of God, an embracing of mission and an evasion of mission, good and bad, compassion and detestation, desire for mercy, desire for truth, Jews and non-Jews.

We read this book as we attempt to stand before God in the hours before Yom Kippur concludes. The majesty of the Kol Nidrei prayer has long passed. The possibility of the dawn and its prayers are gone. The elation of the Mussaf service is behind us, and we are at our thirstiest, our hungriest. We may wish to simply lay down low and sleep--far away from the oppressive synagogue; far away from our oppressive selves, from our contradictions, our conflicts, our limited possibilities, our limitless desires. At this point in the Yom Kippur journey, we are all Jonah. The task is too great, too daunting. We want, simply, to have a sip of water, to sit in the shade, to be, undisturbed. And yet we know that Yom Kippur is coming to a close, that the gates will soon be shut, and there is some internal yearning within us, some unquenchable desire to achieve what we dream for ourselves, to rise to the challenges put before us.

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Maya Bernstein is an Associate at UpStart Bay Area which supports innovation in Jewish life. She is a regular contributor to multiple on-line and in-print publications.