On Reading Jonah on Yom Kippur

8 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2013

See all articles by Barbara Pfeffer Billauer

Barbara Pfeffer Billauer

Institute of World Politics; International Program in Bioethics, U. of Porto; Foundation for Law and Science Centers, Inc.

Date Written: September 17, 2013


The Book of Jonah is one of the most perplexing stories of the Old Testament. This article addresses the question of why this odd story is read during the afternoon service of the holiest day of the Hebrew Year, a time when we seek answers to existential questions and inspirations to aid in the process of repentance.

I propose that Jonah was not running away for Gd, but rather from his task, to prophesize to the wicked of Nineveh, a task he finds abhorrent because he knows it will ultimately result in harm to his people. In this regard, Jonah is very much like us. He is a professed believer, who nevertheless sins and disregards a direct command of the Lord because he finds the task to be burdensome, senseless and in fact irrational in thieyes.

In examining Jonah's conduct, we see that rather than hide his sin, he seems intent on publicizing it, going to great lengths to establish is waywardness. And his conduct demonstrates that he is not afraid of the Lord's ire. In Chapter Four we learn that all along Jonah is relying on Gd's mercy to both forgive him and to give him the strength he needs to accomplish is task. He plainly states that he has known of God's great mercy from the outset, a message that is relevant to us on Yom Kippur. The chapter concludes with God demonstrating to Jonah that as great as Jonah thought Gd's mercy was, it is infinitely greater, being the result of an emotional connection with his creations, rather than a purely intellectual exercise or a quality humans have imbued in their Gd, from, by way of analogy, a drop down list.

We also learn -- from Jonah's example -- that what God expects from us in this journey of repentance, is not a complete turn around in behavior or reformation of our natures, but merely to begin the task.

Keywords: Jonah, Yonah, Repentance, Yom Kippur, Nineveh, Teshuva

Suggested Citation

Billauer, Barbara P., On Reading Jonah on Yom Kippur (September 17, 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2327344 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2327344

Barbara P. Billauer (Contact Author)

Institute of World Politics ( email )

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International Program in Bioethics, U. of Porto ( email )

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Foundation for Law and Science Centers, Inc. ( email )

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