Avi Berkowitz

Maftir Yona: Kapara for All Mankind

In Shulkhan Arukh – the Code of Jewish Law – we find a dispute between the Mekhaber – Rabbi Yosef Cairo – and the Rama – Rabbi Moshe Isserlis – regarding the appropriate blessings to be recited at the conclusion of maftir Yona – the haftara which we read at mincha on Yom Kippur.

According to the Mekhaber the blessings total four in all and include a reference to Yom Kippur as the time of atonement and remission of sin.

The Rama, however, rejects the position of the Mekhaber and contends that only three blessings are chanted, the same three blessings which are chanted at the conclusion of the haftora reading on every other fast day, which means that the blessings contain no reference to the Day of Atonement and the kapara process.

From a halakhic perspective, this dispute between the Mekhaber and the Rama has practical significance regarding the assignment of reading the haftara to an individual who is not fasting because of a medical incapacity.

But beyond its halakhic implications, the dispute carries a significant ideational difference regarding the relationship between the story of Yona and our Yom Kippur activities.

As the story unfolds, God wants Yona to travel to the City of Ninvay, a very large and prosperous non-Jewish City which is located close to the Land of Israel but outside of its territorial boundary lines whose residents lived debauched and decadent lives.

Yona’s mission is to warn the inhabitants of Ninvay that due to their sinfulness their City is at risk of being destroyed – ninvay nehepechet – and that they have just 40 days to repent.  Much of the story revolves around Yona’s futile efforts to evade God and thus avoid having to carry out this mission.  But the essence of the story lies in the message which Yona must deliver to the people of Ninvay, the message to repent, to mend their evil ways and return to the path of righteousness.  And the narrative tells us that the people of Ninvay responded positively to Yona’s warning.  They repented and their city was spared

The Mekhaber’s position regarding the blessings of the haftara, seems calculated to integrate the story of Yona into the very motif of Yom Kippur, the essence of the day, which is, of course, the requirement to do penance.  In this sense, the people of Ninvay serve as a constructive example which means that we read the story of Yona for inspirational purposes.  When the people of Ninvay repented God granted them remission from their sins.  And the clear message is that He will do the same for us, if only we repent.

How different is the perspective of the Rama.  His ruling shifts the emphasis of the story away from atonement and toward fasting.  And in this sense, the Rama seems to be telling us that the story of Yona, but really the entire mincha service marks a great transition in the focus of  our Yom Kippur prayers.

Until this point in the services of the day, beginning with the opening ma’ariv service and going straight through to the end of the musaf service, we focused our prayers on ourselves and our families, on our community, and on our nation, in short, on the people of Israel.

But from this point forward, we broaden our focus.  Our prayers become universal, incorporating all of the nations of the world.  With the onset of the mincha service, and through the conclusion of the neila service, we beseech God to grant remission of sin to all mankind.  And this orientation explains why the tora reading at the mincha service is the portion of the arayot, the portion which enumerates in great detail the prohibition of illicit sexual unions.  This sin is a universal sin – just ask Trump and Clinton.  Non-Jews too are commanded to avoid sexual promiscuity and carnal debauchery.  They too must maintain a high standard of conjugal fidelity.

Based on this understanding of our Yom Kippur prayers, I feel confident about the following claim:  The story of Yona is actually a universalized version of the story of the binding of Isaac.

The essence of the akayda story is the indeterminate principle which is explicated in the famous midrash detailing the story’s narrative climax. According to the midrash, Avraham’s readiness to sacrifice Yitzhaq altered God’s command from that of slaughtering Isaac to merely binding him to the altar.  As such, the meaning of the akayda command was determined by Avraham’s response to it.

The book of Yona is driven by this same dynamic.

“Vayiqra, v’ayomar” – and Yona declared – “od arbaim yom v’ninvay nehepekhet” – in just 40 days, Ninvay will be overturned.”  But the people repented and Ninvay was not overturned!

Or was it?  According to tosafot, the phrase ninvay nehepekhet – Ninvay will be overturned – was given a new and different meaning when the people took God’s warning to heart and changed their evil ways.  Ninvay was indeed overturned in the sense that it went through a revolution of far reaching social, cultural, and economic consequences.  The people were spared destruction because they abandoned their evil ways in favor of moral rectitude and civic responsibility.  And by making this choice they gave the indeterminate word of God a clear and precise meaning

And so, beginning with mincha and culminating with neila, we turn our attention to the needs of the nations of the world.

But what we pray for on their behalf is not that God should grant them remission of sin because of our prayers.  Rather, we pray that they will take responsibility for themselves and subject themselves to a revolutionary process marked by the moral and political integrity established by Avraham at the akayda and repeated by the residents of Ninvay in the days of Yona.

Are either Trump or Clinton listening?

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY