Introduction to Yonah
One of the more famous of the Trei Asar, Yonah was a son of the widow who Eliyahu stayed with during the famine that rocked the land. When this widow’s son died, it was Eliyahu who brought him back to life. Yonah was a student of Elisha, and was a contemporary of Micha and Ovadiah. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Succah) reports that Yonah received prophecy due to both the merits of being oleh le’regel and his great happiness at the simchas beis hasho’eva. Yonah lived for over 120 years. He was sent to make the people of Ninveh (the capital city of Ashur) repent. According to the Midrash, the king of Ninveh was none other than Pharaoh – formerly the king of Egypt during the Exodus. Pharaoh repented at the last minute whilst drowning at the Yam Suf (he said ‘mi kamocha be’keilim Hashem…’ which we say in Ma’ariv each night), and was saved by Hashem as a result. He later became the king of Ninveh. In fact, Chazal reveal that in order to make Yonah’s job easer, Hashem made Yonah’s face appear like that of Moshe Rabbeinu’s, so that Pharaoh would be moved to repent after remembering the torment suffered at the hands of Moshe.
The Radak asks why the book of Yonah was included in Tanach, given that there is no mention of Bnei Yisrael in it? He answers that the purpose of Sefer Yonah to criticize our stubbornness by contrasting it with Ninveh’s readiness to repent, and to extol Hashem’s chesed and miracles for sustaining Yonah in the fish’s belly and for forgiving one who repents for his sins. The Ran’s principle that ‘forecasts of impending destruction for other nations act as a warning to Bnei Yisrael’ is also relevant here. The Vilna Ga’on has a very deep explanation of the events of Sefer Yonah allegorizing the reincarnation of a soul.
The Haftara of Yom Kippur Mincha is Sefer Yonah and Micha 7:18-20
Perek 1: Hashem instructed Yonah to go to Ninveh and encourage her inhabitants to repent. Yonah went to the docks of Yaffoh and set sail to Tarshish to flee from Hashem. He was reluctant to convince Ninveh to repent as he was fearful that Ninveh’s repentance would incriminate Bnei Yisrael for their refusal to repent (Rashi and Radak). Hashem initiated a storm and in response, the sailors offloaded cargo while Yonah was asleep in one of the lower chambers in the ship. The sailor woke him up and demanded he pray to Hashem. Yonah was selected in a lottery conducted to determine the culprit who caused the storm. Yonah related that his primary identity was that he was a Jew and he was fleeing from Hashem. With Yonah’s consent, they cast him overboard and prayed to Hashem, and the storm abated. The sailors decided to offer a sacrifice to Hashem if they would arrive safely (Radak) and vowed to convert to Judaism (Rashi).
Perek 2: Hashem assigned a large (male) fish (Rashi) to swallow Yonah. He subsequently remained within the fish for three consecutive days. Yonah prayed to Hashem whilst in a (female) fish and swore to offer up sacrifices to Hashem. Hashem responded to Yonah’s heartfelt plea and he was deposited onto dry land.
Perek 3: Hashem reminded Yonah of his mission to warn Ninveh to repent. Ninveh was an extremely large city, and was a three day walk from one end to the other. One day into this journey, Yonah announced that in forty days, Ninveh would be wiped out. The inhabitants of Ninveh fasted, prayed, and wore sackcloth; even the king departed from his throne and wore sackcloth and ashes. The king insisted that nobody eat or drink for they must focus on pleading to Hashem and repenting to prevent their punishment. Hashem noted their sincerity and rescinded His decree to destroy Ninveh.
Perek 4: Yonah was distressed that Bnei Yisrael did not repent, unlike Ninveh; his primary reason for escaping to Tarshish previously had now been realized. Yonah constructed a hut for shade and sat there for forty days to discover whether the residents of Ninveh would return to their evil deeds and therefore be destroyed. Hashem miraculously grew a Kikayon tree with many leaves (Rashi) to provide Yonah with heightened comfort, and Yonah was gladdened. However, Hashem set aside a worm to cause the tree to wilt, and the heat of the sun caused Yonah to feel ill. Yonah commented that “He was irritated to the extent of death”. Hashem explained that Yonah did not invest anything into the Kikayon tree, yet was greatly upset when it disappeared, so how could he expect Hashem to not pity Ninveh’s 120,000 inhabitants and many animals?