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Yom Kippur (afternoon) 5770

Yom Kippur Mincha
(The Book of Jonah)
September 28, 2009
10 Tishre 5770

Why was the book of Jonah chosen as the prophetic reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur? Jonah, a Hebrew prophet, was sent to a gentile city, Nineveh, to warn them that their immoral behavior was unseemly before God. Jonah was greatly perturbed by this mission and tried to avoid it, even trying to flee from it, but God was resolute and Jonah eventually made it to Nineveh. When the city heard Jonah\’s message, it prompted them to remorse and penitence: \”The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth… By decree of the king and his nobles: \’No man or beast – of flock or herd – shall taste anything!… Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and find the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.\’ (3:5-9)

Jonah saw himself as an advocate of divine justice and found both the response of the people of Nineveh and God\’s mercy as unacceptable. The medieval commentators debated exactly what bothered Jonah. Rashi claims that Jonah feared that the people of Nineveh would see him as a liar since his prophecy did not come to fruition. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) felt that Jonah was disturbed that the response of the Ninevites would shame the people of Israel who had yet to turn from their evil ways. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (11th century Spain) maintains that Jonah simply did not like the fact that God changed His mind.

Rabbi Yitzhak, a Talmudic sage, however, saw the behavior of the people of Nineveh as a model of the kind of behavior which could alter the verdict of a divine decree: \”Four things can avert a stern decree against a person, namely: tzedakah (charity), supplication (crying out to God), a change of name, and a change in one\’s ways… [From where do we learn that a] change in one\’s ways [can altar one\’s fate?] As it is written: \’And God saw their ways [that they had turned from their evil ways.\’ (Jonah 3:10) and as it is written [immediately afterwards]: \’And God repented of the evil which He said He would do to them and did not carry it out.\’ (Ibid.)\” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

Three of the four behaviors mentioned by Rabbi Yitzhak found their way into the famous liturgical poem \”Unetaneh Tokef\” recited in the repetition for Musaf on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: \”And repentance and prayer and tzedakah avert the stern decree\”. It is abundantly clear that Jonah\’s Ninevites share an important role in this restorative process by illustrating to the world that change and restoration are not only possible but are most certainly what God desires. This is why the book of Jonah is such an important part of the Yom Kippur story.

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.

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