(The Book Of Jonah)
October 13, 2005
It is obvious from the fact that the Sages assigned the book of Jonah as the haftarah for the afternoon (minchah) of Yom Kippur that they found it to be a compelling example of the power of teshuva to overturn a divinely ordained stern decree. There was obviously some intention that the reader should learn from the actions of the non-Jewish Ninevites and learn from the wisdom of their actions.
This is further made evident from the special ritual for fast days called when there was a long term drought in Eretz Yisrael during the period of the Mishnah. On these fast days, the community would gather in the public square, where the leading sage would admonish the people: The elder among them addresses the people with words of admonishment (divrei kebushim) [in order to stir the people to repentance]: \”My brothers, Scripture does not say of the people of Nineveh: \’And God saw their sackcloth and their fast\’, rather it says: \’And God saw their deeds that they had repented their evil ways\’ (Jonah 3:10). (Mishnah Taanit 3:1) The Ninevites are seen here to be exemplars of the lesson taught in this morning\’s haftarah from the prophet Isaiah: \”Why, when we fasted did You (God) not see?… Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress your laborers… no this is the fast that I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break of the yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry…\” (See 58:3-7)
However, the rabbinic view of the Nineveh model was hardly unequivocal. The rabbinic attitude toward the prayers and repentance of the Ninevites seems to have broken down along geographic lines during the period of the Talmud. The Babylonian sages maintained a positive attitude toward the Ninevite change of heart while their contemporaries in Eretz Yisrael seem to have suspicious of Ninevite behavior.
This difference in attitude is particularly noticeable in the interpretation of the king\’s decree after hearing the words of Jonah\’s prophecy to the Ninevites: \”And he (the king) had the word cried through Nineveh: \’By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast – of flock or herd – shall taste anything! They shall not graze and they shall not drink water. They shall be covered with sackcloth – man and beast – and shall cry mightily (b\’hazkah) to God. Let everyone turn from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty (literally \”bekapeihem – in their hands).\’\” (Jonah 3:7-8)
The Babylonian Talmud comments on these verses without taking issue editorially: \”Covered with sackcloth – man and beast\”: How did they act? They separated the animals from their young and they said: \’Master of the Universe, if You will not have mercy on us we will not show mercy on these [animals].\’ \”And they cried out mightily to God\”: What did they say? Master of the Universe, if one is submissive and the other is not, if one is righteous and the other is not, who of them should yield? [God, who is righteous, should submit to the prayers of we who are weak and not righteous.] \”Violence in their hands\” – Samuel said: \’Even if one stole a beam and built it into his house, he should remove the beam and return it to the owner.\” (adapted from Taanit 16a)
The Eretz Yisrael tradition, while similar, has a very different tone. Unlike the Babylonian tradition, which posits these behaviors without comment, allowing us to assume that these behaviors were perfectly acceptable to God, the sages in Israel take issue with them: \”Said Reish Lakish, \’The repentance of people of Nineveh was deceitful. What did they do? Rabbi Huniah in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta: They set up calves inside and mothers outside – these groaned inside and those groaned outside. They said: \’if You (God) do not have mercy on us, we will not have mercy on them.\’ \”Mightily\” – Said Rabbi Shimon be Hafuta: \’The impudent person conquers even the wicked person, all the more so, he conquers God, the source of goodness in the world. \”Guilt that is in their hands\” – Said Rabbi Yochanan: They returned only the stolen things that were in their hands but what they had put away in boxes, arks and closets, no…[So why did God forgive them?] \”Because He is merciful and long suffering.\” (Joel 2:13)\” (adapted from Pesikta d\’Rav Kahana 24:11 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 361-2)
The Babylonian sages want to see the Ninevites as exemplars in order to challenge their fellow Jews to repent. The sages in Eretz Yisrael, apparently, were uncomfortable have non-Jewish role models and therefore found the Ninevite behavior as flawed. For this reason, they taught this story as a lesson in Divine mercy. Both lessons are valuable to us in this season of repentance
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.
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