Why do we read Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur?

Who was Yonah?

Yonah ben Amitai was the child of the widow who sustained Eliyahu.  Yonah died and Eliyahu revived him from the dead.

מלאכים א יז:יז-כד

ויהי אחר הדברים האלה חלה בן האישה בעלת הבית, ויהי חליו חזק מאד עד אשר לא נותרה בו נשמה.  ותומר אל אליהו מה לי ולך איש האלקים, באתי אלי להזכיר את עוני ולהמית את בני.  ויאמר אליה תני לי את בנך, ויקחהו מחיקה ויעלהו אל העליה אשר הוא ישב שם וישכבהו על מטתו. ויקרא אל ה’ ויאמר, ה’ אלקי הגם על האלמנה אשר אני מתגורר עמה הרעות להמית את בנה.  ויתמדד על הילד שלש פעמים ויקרא אל ה’ ויאמר, ה’ אלקי תשב נא נפש הילד הזה על קרבו.  וישמע ה’ בקול אליהו, ותשב נפש הילד על קרבו ויחי.  ויקח אליהו את הילד וירדהו מן העליה הביתה ויתנהו  לאמו, ויאמר אליהו ראי חי בנך.  ותאמר האישה אל אליהו עתה זה ידעתי כי איש אלקים אתה, ודבר ה’ בפיך אמת.

And it happened after these events: The son of the woman, the landlady, became ill.  His illness became very serious, until there was no more breath left in him. She said to Eliyahu, “What is there between me and you, O man of G-d, that you he took him from her bosom brought him up to the upper story where he was dwelling, and laid him on his [own] bed.  He called out to Hashem and said, Hashem, my G-d, have you brought harm even upon the widow with whom I dwell, to cause her son to die?”   He stretched himself over the boy three times, and he called out to Hashem and said, “O Hashem, my G-d, please let this boy’s soul come back within him!”  Hashem listened to the voice of Eliyahu, and the soul of the boy came back within him, and he came to life.  Eliyahu took the boy and brought him down from the upper story of the house, and delivered him to his mother.  Eliyahu said, “See, you son is alive!”  The woman said to Eliyahu, “Now I know [through] this that you are a man of G-d and the word of Hashem is true!”  ( Melachim I 17:17-24)

Yonah received his prophesy, נבואה, during the joyous holiday of Succos.  This occurred appropriately during the extreme joy,שמחה that he experienced at the simchas beis hashoevah ceremony in the Beis Hamikdash (Talmud Yerushalmi Succah).  He eventually lived to the ripe old the age of one hundred and twenty years old.

According to the Midrash, the reason why the king of Nineveh was so receptive to G-d’s word from Yonah was that he was the same Pharaoh from Egypt who interacted with Moshe.  He learned his lesson from his last encounter and did exactly was he was told this time and he did teshuva.

Prophecy can only initiate in the Land of Israel

Prophecy can take place only in Eretz Yisrael and not in any other Land (Mechilta (Bo), Tanchuma (Bo), Zohar Yona 1:85a, Kuzari 2:14, Ibn Ezra Yoel 3:1).  Once a Navi has attained prophesy in Eretz Yisrael he could then obtain a vision in other lands, provided that it was absolutely necessary for the sake of the Jewish people (Kuzari, Zohar ibid).

Initial prophesy, נבוא ,can only take place in Eretz Yisrael and not in any other land.   Yonah, at the time, did not realize that a prophecy initiated in Eretz Yisrael could follow him to chutz la’aretz.  Therefore, Yona ran away from Eretz Yisrael, not realizing his ability to have prophecy, נבואה ,would actually follow him.

The Story of Yonah is an allegory of the relationship of the soul to the physical world

According to the Zohar, Alshich and the Gra, the story of Yonah is also an allegory for the relationship of the soul to physical world.

Therefore, on Yom Kippur we read about the journey of the soul and the importance of repentance.  The Jewish people are compared to a dove, יונה.

ברכות נג עמוד ב

דמתילי כנסת ישראל ליונה דכתיב “כנפי יונה נחפה בכסף ואברותיה בירקרק חרוץ”. מה יונה אינה ניצולה אלא בכנפיה אף ישראל אינן ניצולן אלא במצות.

For the Congregation of Yisrael is compared to a dove, as it is written: “[You will be like] the wings of a dove, coated with silver, and her pinions with brilliant gold” (Tehilim 68:14), and just as a dove is not saved except through her wings, so too, Yisrael is not saved except through the commandments [that it performs].

Yonah is the Jewish soul. In the Navi he is called, יונה בן אמתי, Yonah the son of “truth”.  This indicates that the neshama (soul) is a spark of Hashem (the Devine), derived from the Source of all truth, אמת.  Hashem sent the neshama, Yonah, from Gan Eden to the physical world, called Ninveh, and placed it into a human body.

G-d tells the neshama to go down to the physical world called Ninveh.  In this world the neshama has the possibility to increase its level of holiness (closeness to G-d) and to fulfill the purpose of its creation.  Its responsibility is not only towards itself, but also to other people. In this manner one can achieve true happiness, שמחה.

The soul rejected spirituality and pursued physical pleasures

 However, the neshama ignored the mission G-d sent it to accomplish and chose instead to run away to Tarshish, a land of riches, luxuries and pleasure.  It began its journey in Yafo (NOT Ashdod as currently advertised in Israel) where it found a ship that would take it to Tarshish.  This ship represents the human body.  The soul paid a huge price in spirituality, רוחניות, for payment to be on the ship to Tarshish, where it could indulge in the material delights of this world, גשמיות.

This world is compared to the sea, whereas the next world is compared to the land.  The neshama must travel across the sea to reach the dry land of the next world.  But is can also be diverted to a land that has no connection to the next world.  Yonah, the soul, chose to sail the seas to such a place: to the wealthy, hedonistic city of Tarshish.  And thus the neshama falls from its high level of spirituality and incurs the divine anger from Hashem.

The captain and the crew represent the brain and the heart

Hashem sent waves of suffering, נסיונות, to batter the ship at sea, in order to break down the body through sickness and debility and soon the soul was near death.  The captain and the crew of the ship, that is the brain, the heart and the hands, struggled to right the ship and avert calamity.  They took their money, possessions and cast them overboard.  In other words, they sought to rid themselves of physical possessions, seeking to give them to anyone who could heal the body.  But at this time the neshama slept, unwilling to change its destination even though it was close to death.

The crew of the ship prayed to its idols it trusted but it did not help.  Nothing could end the waves of suffering that swept over the ship.  Finally the captain shook the neshama awake and said, “Why do you sleep? Pray to Hashem before the sick body is thrown overboard and you perish along with it.”  In a similar fashion the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is supposed to wake us up to cry to Hashem and for us to do teshuva.

יונה א:ו

ויקרב אליו רב החבל ויאמר לו מה לך נרדם קום קרא אל אלקיך אולי ותעשת האלקים לנו ולא נאבד.

The ship’s captain then approached him and said to him, “What are you doing sleeping?  Get up [and] call out [in prayer] to your G-d! Maybe G-d will take account of us and we will not die.  (Yonah 1:6)

The neshama states that that it not its fault since it is the body that sins.  The body retorts that it is the soul that makes the decisions, which the body then carries out.  The neshama, יצר הטוב, and the body, יצר הרע, continue to argue back and forth.  Finally lots are cast to determine what to do.  The lot fell on the neshama.  Since it is a spark of holiness, קדושה, from Hashem, it should know better and it is thus responsible.

The brain and the heart question the neshama and ask: Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your spiritual origin and what is your purpose in life?

יונה א:ח

ויאמרו אליו הגידה נא לנו באשר למי הרעה הזאת לנו, מה מלאכתך ומאין תבוא מה  ארצך ואי מזה עם אתה?

They asked him, “Please tell us.  To whom [did you sin], that because [of it] this disaster is [happening] to us? What is your profession and from where did you come?  What is your country and from which people are you?  (Yonah 1:8)

The neshema responds that it is from Gan Eden and its purpose is to fear Hashem and prepare itself for eternal life.  But, “I have done sins, עבירות”, says the soul.

            יונה א:ט

ויאמר אליהם עברי אנכי, ואת ה’ אלקי השמים אני ירא אשר עשה את הים ואת היבשה.

He answered them, “I am an Ivri, and I fear Hashem, G-d of the Heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land. (Yonah 1:9)

The heart complains that since you have sinned, you thereby have jeopardized the existence of the body in which you travel.  We may perish together.

 יונה א:י

וייראו האנשים יראה גדולה ויאמרו אליו מה זאת עשית, כי ידעו האנשים כי מלפני ה’ הוא ברח כי הגיד להם.

The men were terribly afraid, and said to him, “Why did you do such a thing?”  For the men knew the he was fleeing from before Hashem, since he had told them [this]. (Yonah 1:10)

The brain says to the neshama, your purpose is not to indulge in physical pleasures.  You are not meant to travel to Tarshish.  You are meant to study the Torah and to pursue holiness.  You have been placed in a Jewish body, and that gives you great responsibility.

The neshama admits that they are correct and that he should be held accountable.  The brain and heart ask how will the neshama help them to survive and get rid of this horrible suffering?  They ask for a spiritual remedy.

יונה א:יא

            ויאמרו אליו מה נעשה לך וחשתק הים מעלינו, כי הים הולך וסער.

They then asked him, “What shall we do to you, [so that] the sea become calm [around] us?” for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. (Yonah 1:11)

The neshama says to expel it from the body, and then the suffering will end.  The brain and the heart were not convinced and they attempted to return to their point of departure, the origin of the soul; so that the soul could return to its original state of purity.  No matter how hard they tried they did not succeed.

יונה א:יב – יד

ויאמר אליהם שאוני והטילני אל הים וחשתק הים מעליכם, כי יודע אני כי בשלי הסער הגדול הזה עליכם.  ויחתרו האנשים להשיב אל היבשה ולא יכלו, כי הים הולך וסער עליהם.  ויקרעו אל ה’ ויאמרו אנא ה’ אל נא נאבדה בנפש האיש הזה  ואל תתן עלינו רם נקיא, כי אתה ה’ כאשר חפצת עשית.

He answered them, “Pick me up and cast me into the sea, and the sea will become calm [around] you, for I know that it is on my account that this great storm is upon you.”  The men rowed hard to return to shore but could not, for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy upon them.  They then called out [in prayer] to Hashem and said, “Please, Hashem! Please let us not perish for [taking] the life of this man, and do not impose upon us [the guilt of] innocent bloodshed, for You are the Eternal – whatever You wished [to do] You have done.”  (Yonah 1:12-14)

 At this time the body had no choice and it expelled the soul.  The suffering finally came to an end.

יונה א:ט”ו

וישאו את יונה ויטלהו אל הים, ויעמד הים מזעפו.

They then picked up Yonah and cast him into the sea, and the sea stopped raging. (Yonah 1:15)

 The soul lost hope of overcoming its יצר הרע. It therefore threw itself into the depth of pleasure and lust.  Only when it reached rock bottom does it come to the realization of how low it has fallen.  At that point it comes back to the land of intellect and does teshuva (Rav Tanchum ben Yosef).

The neshama rose to the heavenly court, where it was judged.  It accepted the judgment.  The neshama separated from the body and entered a fish and was swallowed into its stomach.  It was in Gehinom.  For three days the neshama cried out in pain begging to return to the body.  The neshama confessed its sins and admits it should never have listened to the yetzer harah.

Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (three day a year Jews)

Once the neshama was cleansed, Hashem placed it in Gan Eden to await further instructions.  The neshama was then sent back to be reincarnated in another body.  It was sent back to this world which is called Ninveh. This time it has instructions to warn the people to stop doing sins, עבירות, and return to G-d.  While in Ninveh it discovers a world that has Jews that only think of repentance three days a year: Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

יונה ג:ג

ויקם יונה וילך אל נינוה כדבר ה’, ונינוה היתה עיר גדולה לאלקים מהלך שלשת ימים.

Yonah arose and went to Ninveh, according to Hashem’s [instructions].  Now Ninveh was godly size large city, [there being] a three day walking distance [from one end to the other].  (Yonah 3:3)

Forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Yonah the neshama awakens the hearts of the inhabitants of Ninveh and warns them that it is time to do teshuva; as there are only forty days left until the final judgment on Yom Kippur.  The word Ninveh, נינוה , has in it the letters of the name of יונה with and extra “נ”; this represents Yonah’s request for forty days of teshuva.  Otherwise, they will face the divine decree that Ninveh will we destroyed.

יונה ג:ד

ויחל יונה לבוא בעיר מהלך יום אחד, ויקרא ויאמר עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת.

Yonah began to enter the city [as far as] one day’s walking distance.  He then called out and said, “In another forty days Ninveh will be overturned.”  (Yonah 3:4)

Yonah’s message was accepted by the inhabitants of Ninveh and they repented. G-d accepted their repentance and rescinded His decree.

Suffering as atonement for previous sins

The soul performed its mission as it was supposed to. However, it still had baggage of its previous incarnation.  Therefore, Yonah needed to suffer hardship, יסורים, to cleanse the sins, עבירות, of his previous lifetime.

The neshama begged G-d to take him away again. Yonah said that in his previous life he thought he could follow his desires and there would always be time to repent later.  But he was mistaken; there is not always time to repent.  I his case at least he repented prior to his first death.

יונה ד:ג

ועתה ה’ קח נא את נפשי ממני כי טוב מותי מחיי.

So now, Hashem.  Please take my soul from me; for it is better that I die than live.  (Yonah 4:3)

He did not realize that his suffering was due to his previous deeds and that he was being judged by G-d properly.  G-d asked him, is it proper that you are envious of those who are more fortunate than you?  Do you think I create some lives with a purpose and others not?

יונה ד:ד

ויאמר ה’ ההיטב חרה לך.

Hashem replied, “Are you [really] so upset?”  (Yonah 4:4)

Yonah sat in a sukkah

Yonah accepted his chastisement.  He then withdrew from the world of physical aspiration and the pursuit of pleasure to a place of Torah study, symbolized by the sukkah.  All he sought for himself was a shady spot and the barest minimum necessary for survival so that he could learn Torah in peace.  Similarly, at this time of year we say the following prayer at the end of Shacharis and Maariv:

             תהילים כז:ד-ה

אחת שאלתי מאת ה’ אותה אבקש, שבתי בבית ה כל ימי חיי, לחזות בנעם ה’, ולבקר בהיכלו.  כי יצפנני בסכה ביום רעה, יסתירני בסתר אהלו, בצור ירוממני.

 One thing I asked of Hashem, that I shall seek: Would that I dwell in the House of G-d all the days of my life, to behold the delight of Hashem and to contemplate in his Sanctuary.  Indeed, He will hide me in His Shelter on the day of evil; He will conceal me in the concealment of His tent, upon a rock He will lift me. (Tehilim 27:4-5)

G-d wanted to teach Yonah an important lesion in life.  He sent him the wealth that he wanted in this world symbolized by the kikayon.  Its leafy branches blocked out the material world around him and protected him from his self imposed poverty.  The kikayon bore no fruit; just as the wealthy pleasures, גשמיות, in this world does not bear fruit that can be transported to the next world.  Moreover, any relief it provided in this world was deducted from the merit he accrued for the next world.  As such, the respite did not last very long.  Once the neshama exhausted its merits, Yonah’s good fortune came to an end and he returned to a life of suffering and misery.

Our spiritual effort is what G-d wants

G-d said not to be distraught over the loss of the kikayon, for the pleasures of this world are futile, הבל הבלים… הכל הבל ((קהלת יב:ח. They can disappear overnight.  Furthermore, he really did nothing to produce or earn them.  It is our spiritual effort that will bear fruit for us in both this world and the next.  This is what G-d expects from the Jews. He wants us to repent and to seek Him out, so that that we can enjoy both worlds.  He waits for us to repent in this world, so that when we leave, we can go straight to Gan Eden.  He does not want us to suffer through the seven levels of Gehinom and then have to return to this world reincarnated.

Yonah learned the lessons of the kikayon, that the pursuit of worldly pleasures is folly and it does not lead to eternal life. He learned that in this world wealth and comfort are here one day and gone the next. He learned the importance of repenting in this world and thereby received a greater portion in Gan Eden.

G-d gives the soul forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, to make an accounting and repent.  Our goal in life is to seek Hashem, אותה אבקש , and to realize all of our physical benefits come from G-d, not from our efforts:

דברים ח:יז

ואמרת בלבבך, כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה.

 And you may say in your heart, “My strength and the might of my hand made me this wealth!”(Devarim (Ekev) 8:17)

We need to make G-d’s will, our will.

משנה פרקי אבות ב:ד

הוא היה אומר[רבן גמליאל] : עושה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו.  בטל רצונך מפני רצונו, כדי שיבטל רצון אחרים מפני רצונך.

[Raban Gamliel] He used to say: Treat His will as if were your own will, so that He will treat your will as His will.  Nullify your will before His will, so that He will nullify the will of others before your will. (Pirkei Avos 2:4)

If the neshama complies, then it will earn its portion in the next world and will hasten the arrival of Moshiach. In this manner G-d bestows goodness on all his creations and also gives us purpose for our existence.

תהילים קמה:טז

פותח את ידך, ומשביע לכל חי רצון.

You open your hand, and satisfy every living thing [with its] desire. (Tehilim 145:16)

Arie E. Pelta, MD

Bibliography

Let My Nation Be Warned. Yosef Deutsch. (Feldheim Publishers. 2014).

Inner Space. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. (Moznaim Publishing Corp. 1990).