Jonah and the Whale

Why the Book of Jonah Is Read on Yom Kippur


Stichting Fonds Goudse Glazen, Gouda

Jonah strides forth from the gaping mouth of a huge fish in this stained-glass window in St. John’s Church, Gouda, the Netherlands.

The Book of Jonah is read in the synagogue on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the sacred Day of Atonement. Why, of all books in the Bible, this book this most holy day?

The answer is clear. The major themes of the book are singularly appropriate to the occasion—sin and divine judgment, repentance and divine forgiveness.

What is remarkable is that the work is not at all about Israel. The sinners and penitents and the sympathetic characters are all pagans, while the anti-hero, the one who misunderstands the true nature of the one God, is none other than the Hebrew prophet. He is the one whom God must teach a lesson in compassion.

It is precisely these aspects of this sublime prophetic allegory, and in particular the subthemes of the book, that inform Yom Kippur. These motifs attracted the ancient Jewish sages and led them to select Jonah as one of the day’s two prophetic lectionaries.1 Its universalistic outlook; its definition of sin as predominantly moral sin;2 its teaching of human responsibility and accountability; its apprehension that true repentance is determined by deeds and established by transformation of character (Jonah 3:10), not by the recitation of formulas, however fervent; its emphasis on the infinite preciousness of all living things in the sight of God (Jonah 4:10–11); and, finally, its understanding of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness” (Jonah 4:2)—all these noble ideas of the Book of Jonah constitute the fundamentals of Judaism and the quintessence of Yom Kippur.

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That a selection from the prophets is read at all in the afternoon of Yom Kippur raises more technical issues. The Sabbath morning services include a reading from the Torah (the Pentateuch), followed by a selection from the prophets. In the service on Sabbath afternoon, only a selection from the Torah is read. According to rabbinic sources, however, a reading from the prophets once followed the Torah reading each Sabbath afternoon, just as it still does each Sabbath morning.3 No trace of this practice of reading from the prophets at the afternoon service has remained, however, except perhaps on the two great Jewish fast days: Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of the first and Second Temples and a host of national Jewish tragedies since, and Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur it has been the universal Jewish custom, ever since the days of the Mishnah (about 200 C.E.), to read the Book of Jonah after the Torah lectionary, as part of the afternoon service.4

“Jonah and the Whale: Why the Book of Jonah Is Read on Yom Kippur” by Nahum Sarna originally appeared in the August 1990 issue of Bible Review. It was republished in Bible History Daily on September 20, 2015.

The late Nahum Sarna was professor emeritus of biblical studies at Brandeis University. He was also general editor of the Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary and author of its volumes on Genesis and Exodus.


More on Jonah and the whale in the BAS Library:

James Limburg, “Jonah and the Whale: Through the Eyes of Artists,” Bible Review, August 1990.

David Noel Freedman, “Jonah and the Whale: Did God Play a Dirty Trick on Jonah at the End?” Bible Review, August 1990.

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1. The other is Isaiah 57:14–58:4.

2. The “evil” of Jonah 1:2 is defined as injustice in Jonah 3:8.

3. Babylonian Talmud. Shabbbat 24a, 116a.

4. Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 31a.


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  1. Paul says

    Beautiful piece. Very concise overview of the relevant points in the story of Jonah. Fascinating how the late Prof. Sarnanote brought out the ‘universalistic outlook’ and the pagan/Gentile inclusiveness of this Rabbinic choice of reading. Adds new depth to this beautiful feast,
    many thanks.

  2. Kurt says

    Why Did the Law Require Sacrifices?
    “The soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I myself have put it upon the altar for you to make atonement for your souls.”—LEVITICUS 17:11.

    GOD made provision for individuals and for the nation as a whole to atone for their sins by means of sacrifices, or offerings. According to the Law, anyone committing a sin had to rectify the wrong and then present to Jehovah an appropriate offering. Various sins required specific offerings, and these provided a measure of relief from guilt.—Leviticus 5:5-7.

    A priest in ancient Israel leads a sacrificial animal to the altar
    Sacrifices provided relief from guilt
    On one day each year—Yom Kippur—the high priest entered the Most Holy of the temple with the blood of sacrifices made for his own sins and for those of the people. (Leviticus 16:11, 14, 15) This and the other ceremonies on that day gave everyone a feeling of relief from the accumulated burden of guilt for all the past year’s sins. Without pouring out the blood of the sacrificial animal, no forgiveness could take place “because it is the blood that makes atonement.”—Leviticus 16:30; 17:11.
    Why does God not just forgive us outright?

    Jehovah is willing to forgive “in a large way.” (Isaiah 55:7) But he will never rescind his moral laws. Since God respects his own perfect standards, he cannot simply ignore our imperfections and sins. “The Rock, perfect is his activity, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness, with whom there is no injustice; righteous and upright is he.”—Deuteronomy 32:4.

    Ask yourself: ‘What would happen to society if the authorities just pardoned all criminals and released them from jail? What would happen to the entire universe if God suddenly rescinded his physical laws, such as the law of gravity?’ His moral laws are equally important.

    So if no imperfect human could carry out the Law perfectly, what kind of sacrifice is needed to cover our sins? See similar Material:

  3. Ramón says

    13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh,
    14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. ESV9:13-14

  4. Ramón says

    The ríght quotation to answer Kurt’ question is Heb 9:13-14: 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh,
    14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (ESV)

  5. Seymour says

    One, it’s not a whale. Dag gadol is a big fish and whales are not fish. Two, there is one other reason why Jonah is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Chapter four which is highly enigmatic illustrates both the deep concern that God has for Jonah’s situation (illness – manic depression) and His willingness to act as therapist towards a possible cure. By that time on Yom Kippur we all need to know God as therapist and friend, not only King and father.

  6. Francis says

    For all its brevity (about three pages), the Book of Jonah is one of the most complex in the Hebrew Bible. For a truly profound commentary on it, I refer the reader to Andre Lacocque and Pierre-Emmanuel Lacocque, The Jonah Complex (1981), the one a biblical scholar, the other a psychologist. As Seymour notes, there is a deep psychological aspect here, with Jonah still contrary to the end. And as Nahum Sarna states in the article, there is an inversion of roles. Indeed, the Lacocques’ analysis points out numerous reversals, from Jonah’s expectations to the reader’s expectations.

    And yet there is some humor in the story. Not only does everyone in Nineveh repent, but so do the herds and the flocks, which all wear ashes and sackcloth for the 40 day period. And then there is the far less than enthusiastic proclamation by Jonah after walking three days from the gate of Nineveh to its center (more humorous exaggeration). Jonah delivers a one-liner. He does not want to say anything at all, but he has promised YHWH that he would. But despite his best efforts to comply with his promise only to the letter and not the spirit of the warning, word spreads almost instantly throughout the city, and everyone and every thing believes that they have heard the word of god.

  7. Mervyn says

    Johah had no contact with God until he was swallowed by the special fish. Only then, and not straight away, did he call on God.
    He found that he could not talk to God in the busy world: only when he was switched off could he make contact. Yom Kippur is the one day a year when we can make contact with God because we are completely switched off from the world, We spend the evening and then the whole of the next day in synagogues with no diversions for trifles like eating or drinking, TV or emails etc.
    That is one of the messages of the Book of Jonah.

  8. Eliezer says

    Dunno, Mervyn. Jonah was a prophet, so we may assume that he had previous contact with God. That’s how that works, you see.

    Jonah the son of Amitai was one of the greatest prophets during the time of Jeroboam II. As a prophet disciple, he had anointed Jehu.

  9. Rob says

    Mervyn has it with the turn-off day. Like thinking outside an envelope. Like having the first tasty meal after surgery. Would it be that this could happen more often; however commercial interests are wont to give us that freedom.

  10. David says

    First, the title was what most people think of as the story. The subhead indicated big fish.
    Second, one interpretation that Prof Sarna did not bring out was why Jonah was so reluctant to prophecy to Ninevah. As a prophet, he knew that Ninevah would repent (some say the king was actually Pharoah who knew just what would happen if they didn’t). He also knew this would be used against Israel when they didn’t repent, and he didn’t want to participate in Israel’s exile.

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