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Yom Kippur (afternoon) 5763

Haftarah Kom Kippur – Mincha
(The Book Of Yonah)
September 16, 2002

In the book of Jonah, the story of the fish which swallowed Jonah is one of its most colorful episodes. The rabbis noticed an unusual literary peculiarity in the story. When the fish first swallowed Jonah, the fish is referred to as a “dag” – a male fish. Later in the story, the fish is referred to as a “daggah” – a female fish. In order to explain this anomaly, the midrashic literature appended the following story to the one found in the Tanach:

[When the sailors caste Jonah into the sea], the Holy One Blessed be He brought a big fish (dag) to swallow Jonah….as it is written: ‘The Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah.” (Jonah 2:1) Jonah entered the fish’s mouth like someone who enters into a large synagogue. The fish’s eyes were like two large windows for Jonah to see through…[Jonah and the fish go through a series of adventures all of which cause Jonah great fulfillment until they come opposite the Holy Temple] The fish said to Jonah: ‘Behold you are directly opposite God’s sanctuary, pray and you will be answered.’ But Jonah remained three days in the belly of the fish and still did not pray. God said [to Himself]: ‘I provided him [Jonah] with comfortable quarters in the belly of the fish and he did not pray before Me. So now I will provide for him a pregnant fish (daggah) filled with three hundred and sixty five thousand baby fish in order to cause him sufficient discomfort so that he might pray before me… The male fish eventually spewed Jonah from its belly and he was swallowed by the pregnant fish. Once he was in the pregnant fish, the crowded conditions and the filth caused him great anguish. Only then did he pray before the Holy One blessed be He so that He might escape from the pregnant fish… (adapted from Midrash Jonah in Beit Hamidrash – Jellineck 1)

Some people, like Jonah in this story, need a special incentive to initiate their relationship with God. Jonah serves as an example of the person who returns to God for ulterior motives (shlo lishma). While his religious intentions are not ideal, still what is important is his ultimate teshuva . It is much better, though, to develop our relations with God out of love. (lishma – for its own sake) rather than to wait for the trial to raise our awareness. Then our teshuva is truly an act of service to God.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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