Why we should read ‘Jonah’ on Yom Kippur

Boaz Roth teaches English, math and ancient Greek at Thomas Jefferson School in Sunset Hills. He is (happily) the immediate past president of Traditional Congregation. He writes that he dedicates this column to the lives of Simon Kohn, Isaac Bonuik and Frank Altman.

By Boaz Roth

By Boaz Roth

Beware, Jewish Light readers: if you’ve come to this column expecting intelligent words about Yom Kippur, turn the page immediately.  Below is what happens when you mix a high school English teacher, three chapters of biblical text, and too much free time.  In other words, it’s a speculative explanation of why we read “Jonah” on Yom Kippur.  While I hope my words will incite your thoughts about both the “Jonah” story and the holiday as a whole, clearly no rabbi in his or her right mind would consider my claims grounded in Jewish tradition.  If you choose to read this column, you can’t say you weren’t warned.  

So why do we read “Jonah” on Yom Kippur?  Two reasons strike me as not simply plausible but crucial.  We find the first at the end of this brief text. Cliffs Notes recap: After washing up on shore, Jonah goes to Nineveh, warns the city of its future if it won’t relent from its evil ways, and is shocked to watch them miraculously heed the wishes of God.  In the story’s final verses, Jonah sits outside the city in a sukkah and pouts.  God creates a leafy plant to cover Jonah’s head from the sun, but the next day the Lord taketh away, when He has an insect destroy the plant while the sun’s rays heat up Jonah’s head.  The end of the story approaches after this exchange:

 9 Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And Jonah said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.”


10 Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight.

11 Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”

At this point, the story just stops.  We never hear Jonah’s response: This silence suggests we’re forced to answer God’s question. “Jonah” makes us become Jonah.  And what do we make of this question?  Clearly we’re forced to wonder about God’s providence, about His salvation for the wicked.  God’s very sense of justice is called to question with this question-filled ending.  Remember that Ninaveh is not merely a non-Hebrew city—it is the capital of the Assyrians, who will eventually conquer and assimilate the 10 northern kingdoms of Israel.  Of course Jonah questions God’s decision; I do, too.

So here is the first of two possibilities for our reading “Jonah”:  This book forces us to grapple with God’s puzzling ways during a day of complete introspection.

However, the part of the story we’re all familiar with presents another compelling reason for the work’s inclusion on Yom Kippur. This is, of course, the whale.  Now while I’ll admit my Hebrew is poor, I know that dag gadol means “great fish.” Somehow the Western world made a whale out this fish.  Yet if we accept this watery beast as a whale, we’ll find another rich lesson in the story.  And the man who will provide this precious moral is someone whom we might not immediately associate with Hebraic scholarship.  His parents christened him Eric Blair, but you and I know him by a different name: George Orwell.

In 1939 Orwell wrote an essay titled “Inside the Whale” that ostensibly critiques Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.”  At the essay’s close, Orwell—after acknowledging that the whale is actually a fish —examines a quote by Miller, who once stated that being swallowed by a whale isn’t such a horrible fate.  Orwell amplifies this claim:  

“For the fact is that being inside a whale is a very comfortable, cozy, homelike thought. The historical Jonah, if he can be so called, was glad enough to escape [into the whale]…. It is, of course, quite obvious why. The whale’s belly is simply a womb big enough for an adult. There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality, able to keep up an attitude of the completest indifference, no matter what happens. A storm that would sink all the battleships in the world would hardly reach you as an echo. Even the whale’s own movements would probably be imperceptible to you. He might be wallowing among the surface waves or shooting down into the blackness of the middle seas (a mile deep, according to Herman Melville), but you would never notice the difference.”

Following Orwell’s suggestion, here is the other compelling explanation for reading “Jonah” on Yom Kippur.  The whale’s belly is a place to escape the world: it is the place of complete indifference. In other words, to acquiesce to indifference is to lie passively inside the whale. The whale is our indifference.  

To free himself from the whale and finally follow the path God set before him, Jonah sang hymns of praise. And while the text is unclear to me about Jonah’s fasting in the whale’s belly, I’m confident that Kohn’s doesn’t make sub-aquatic deliveries.  Fasting and singing hymns in praise of God: remind you in any way of Yom Kippur?  Jonah’s captivity and release are what we will experience on Yom Kippur.  For 25 hours, you and I are like Jonah, inside the whale.  But through fasting, prayer, and the spiritual leadership of our particular communities, we will find our way out.  Perhaps I should state it this way: will we find our way out, through fasting, prayer, and our trust in God and Torah.

So there you have it: wrestling with God’s sometimes unfathomable (sorry!) demands and freeing ourselves from the self-imprisonment of indifference are two possible explanations for our reading “Jonah” on Yom Kippur.  I concede that indolence has kept me away from consulting reputable Jewish sources, and probably a quick look there would provide sounder reasons than mine.  Still, I hope that my speculations fire up your thoughts; better yet, I hope you share them with the magnificent Jewish community St. Louis harbors.  G’mar chatimah tovah!