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.