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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  • Wes says

    My thanks to the late Nahum Sarta for writing this and for BAR for republishing the article on line. It is well worth contemplating and it stimulates further thought.

    In the OT Jonah and Job seem to resemble each other, even though one is considered among the writings and the other among the prophets. As the author of this piece indicated, they were more about non-Jews than Jews, but also about the universal relation to the Lord. And both seem to have a link to the Assyrian world. In Job, for one, it was the prominent role of camel caravans. In Jonah, it was Nineveh, a metropolis that by description seems whale-like itself.

    Among all the other mysteries, where is Tarshish? I looked around for references and arguments that placed it all around the Mediterranean: Carthage, Spain, and Sardinia. I’d heard most of my life the supposed Spanish connection, but never thought about the astounding breadth of that Biblical world horizon until recently.
    There were arguments that Phoenician tradeships of Tyre went off to lands with mines. And then that’s where the Sardinia comes in with the so-called Nora Stone dating from 9th to 7th BCE.

    Here are some translations from the Phoenician inscription:

    Line Transliteration Translation (Peckham) Translation (Cross)
    a. He fought (?)
    b. with the Sardinians (?)
    1 btršš From Tarshish at Tarshish
    2 wgrš hʾ he was driven; and he drove them out.
    3 bšrdn š in Sardinia he Among the Sardinians
    4 lm hʾ šl found refuge, he is [now] at peace,
    5 m ṣbʾ m his forces found refuge; (and) his army is at peace:
    6 lktn bn Milkuton, son of Milkaton son of
    7 šbn ngd Shubon the commander. Shubna (Shebna), general
    8 lpmy To (god) Pmy. of (king) Pummay.

    There are Semitic Language scholars in this gathering that can do better analysis of the original and the two versions of the Nora Stone text than I can, for sure. But it should also be noted that there is such a thing as “Phoenician”. Archeological and perhaps even Biblical.

    Sometimes I meet people disturbed by events of the present day and they feel as though they can see clearly what’s on the calendar for all the present day Babylons and Ninevehs. Whether they sailed for Tarshish or spent time within big fish or whales I do not know, but it might help sometimes to reflect on the career of Jonah.

  • TOMMY L says

    Sorry the author has passed on. Would love to discuss it with him. As for “…the one who misunderstands the true nature of the one God, is none other than the Hebrew prophet” [Jonah]. This should not be so surprising, after all part of the reason Jesus came was because most of the spiritual leaders of Israel had the wrong picture of God & this helped them totally miss the truth that “He was not willing that any should perish” but that He wanted even the Gentiles to be saved!
    By misunderstanding God, their understanding of sin became distorted too. The author said they came to see sin as “predominantly moral sin”. According to God’s moral law…the 10 Commandments…all sin is the breaking of His moral law! There is no sin that is not the result of breaking God’s moral law!
    As for the book of Jonah being a “prophetic allegory”, perhaps Jesus didn’t know this because it is obvious that He believed the book to be a true accounting of one of God’s prophets that needed to be ‘straightened out’ about the God he served so he could then help straighten out the people he was sent to see, and eventually, through his story, untold numbers of readers and Bible students could be straightened out and receive His [God’s] salvation!! Jesus also believed and taught that the book of Daniel was true! But if it’s not, then perhaps this is why most Rabbis, down through history, don’t like their people studying certain parts of the book.

  • james says


  • leister says

    I have to disagree with nissarudden. the Quran is NOT the final revelation as it contradicts the Holy Scripture and God’s anointed prophets. Mashiyach ( the 7 Spirits of God in its fullness) is foretold from Genesis Right through to revelations. The Begotten son of God, Yeshua was filled and anointed with These 7 spirits of God in its fullness. Mohammod was not. Therefore the Quran is no revelation but the product of one man’s vanity.

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