Tzvi Novick

Jonah’s Terrible Sukkah

Jonah Under His Gourd (Marten van Hemmskerck, 1561)

The book of Jonah is read as the haftarah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur because of the central role of repentance therein, but the book also seems to points us forward to Sukkot, for Jonah builds a sukkah.  After the reluctant prophet warns the Ninevites of their imminent destruction, he leaves the city but stations himself just east of it, “and he made for himself there a hut (sukkah), and he sat under it, in the shade, to see what would happen in the city” (4:5).  The strange story of the qiqayon plant follows: God appoints the plant to grow up over Jonah, “to be as shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort” (4:6).  Jonah rejoices over the plant, but when God designates a worm to kill the plant, and then afflicts Jonah with the sun’s heat, Jonah becomes faint, and asks God to put him out of his misery.  Leaving aside the lesson about God’s mercy that Jonah is meant to learn from these events, let us consider a basic plot question: What happened to the sukkah?  Why did Jonah so rejoice over the qiqayon, when he already had the sukkah for shade?  And why did the qiqayon’s failure and the shining sun so perturb Jonah, when the sukkah still stood?

The traditional commentators struggle to address this question.  They notice that the qiqayon is said to offer shade specifically “over his head.”  (Likewise, in 4:8, the sun beats specifically “on Jonah’s head.”) Perhaps, then, the branches that Jonah set over his sukkah had dried out, so that the area overhead was exposed, and benefited from the qiqayon (Abarbanel).  Or perhaps, more imaginatively, the saltwater in which Jonah had been immersed when he was cast overboard in the storm caused him to lose his hair, so that his head was especially sensitive to sun, and needed more shade than could be provided by his sukkah (Joseph Qara).  These responses solve the plot hole, but do not explain the sukkah’s role in the story.  Why does the narrator bother to say that Jonah built a sukkah, only to overshadow it altogether with the qiqayon, and never mention it again?

The answer that I will offer does not address the plain sense of the text.  (One possible mundane solution: The book assumes the reader’s knowledge that the qiqayon is a climbing plant, so that the sukkah’s role lies in supporting it.)  Rather, in the manner of a certain tradition in Jewish thought, two of whose representatives will appear below, I take Torah here in the broadest sense as furnishing a set of conceptual symbols that can, in their interconnection, give expression to or even reveal meaning.  Let us turn back, in this vein, to the topic of repentance, which grounds the reading of the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur.  Repentance is the great theme of the high holidays.  Other major themes of these holidays are the creation of the world, God’s kingship, and judgement.  There are different ways to situate repentance among these other themes.  Perhaps the simplest is as follows: To mark the anniversary of the world’s creation, we coronate God.  And because a chief task of the king is to judge his people, the high holidays become a period of judgement.  And because we wish to emerge innocent from God’s judgement, we repent.

But there is another, not incompatible way of aligning these themes.  If the New Year marks the creation of the world, then it is an apt time for repentance because repentance is itself a sort of act of creation.  R. Isaac Hutner (the Pahad Yitzhak), in his first discourse for Yom Kippur, gets at this notion via the Maharal’s view that of the two instances of the name of God (Y-H-W-H) that open the list of God’s thirteen attributes (Exodus 34:6), the first is for before a person sins, and the second is for when a person sins and repents.  R. Hutner observes that the other attributes in the list of thirteen, like “merciful” and “slow to anger,” are general properties.  They describe God in ways that are applicable (mutatis mutandis) to other things in the world.  By contrast, “Y-H-W-H” is a proper name; it cannot be attached to anything in the world, but only to God.  Hence the name “Y-H-W-H” signifies the creation of the world: for the first time, before sin, and for a second time, following sin, when, through repentance, the world is remade.  “Repentance is the second edition of creation ex nihilo.”

Appreciating the high holidays as the celebration of God as creator—the creator of the world, and of the capacity for rebirth through repentance—enables us to recognize a link between the high holidays and Sukkot.  The central commandment of Sukkot is creative in an immediate, physical sense: One must make a hut.  The rabbis underscore the creative dimension of this commandment: “You shall make,” says the verse (Deut 16:13), meaning, say the rabbis, that one cannot use an already existing sukkah; one must actually build the thing.  Even when it comes to the other major commandment of the holiday, the four species, the rabbis insist that it is not enough simply to take and lift them; one must tie them together in a bundle (eged).  From the perspective we have traced, Sukkot as a festival of human creation follows logically from the high holidays as the reenactment of divine creation.  With the world and ourselves having been made anew by God, we set ourselves, likewise, to making, both from scratch and through combination.

And so we arrive back at Jonah.  Why is Jonah’s sukkah so terrible, so thoroughly useless that the shade that it provides is not even worth mentioning after the qiqayon comes on the scene?  If we recognize repentance as a sort of recreation, then Jonah’s failure as a sukkah-builder follows directly from his rejection of repentance.  Jonah—rather nobly—is unwilling to give up on justice.  One who sins should be punished; it is not right simply to forgive and forget.  Can we dare to speak of a new creation when it is plainly the same old world, in all its brokenness?  However we make sense of the miracles of repentance, forgiveness, and recreation, we can appreciate that the book of Jonah, in making the man who rejects repentance also the man who builds a singularly ineffective sukkah, exposes a conceptual continuity between the high holidays and Sukkot around the motif of creation.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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