Unusual explanations in Midrashim on Jonah


Midrashim, the singular is Midrash, are many books composed over centuries that contain laws as well as a myriad of legends. The name is derived from the Hebrew root d-r-sh, to sermonize and to expound. In the beginning of his book Chelek, Maimonides warns that people who take the midrashic legends as facts are fools (because they are not true), those who dismiss them entirely are also fools, but those who seek the messages that the stories are hiding are smart (for the rabbis were not novelists, but teachers who sometimes taught their lessons to the common folk in parables and other tales.

Louis Ginzberg collected many of the rabbinical Midrashim in his seven volumes “The Legends of the Jews.”[1] The legends about Jonah are principally in volume 4, with a few in volumes 1, 3, and 4. Ginzberg records the Midrashic sources of the tales in the Index, in volume 7. The following are some of what the Midrashim relate.

Jonah was the most prominent disciple of the prophet Elisha.[2] He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, which did not occur because the people repented and Jonah was thereafter known as “the false prophet.”[3] This experience which affected his pride caused him to flee from the Nineveh mission: He knew the Ninevites would also repent and he would be called a false prophet again.

Jonah fled to Jaffa and found no ship in the port. To test Jonah, God caused a storm to arise that carried a vessel that was two-day’s journey from Jaffa back to Jaffa. Jonah interpreted this as God approving his plan to flee. He was so overjoyed that he paid the transportation cost of the entire cargo in advance even though it was not his cargo. After a single day of sailing, a violent storm arose that miraculously only injured Jonah’s ship, no other ship in the sea.

There were sailors from each of the seventy nations on board Jonah’s ship and each prayed[4] to his own idol. They agreed that they would worship the god who saved the ship. When the ship’s captain heard that Jonah was a Hebrew, he recalled that the Hebrew God was very powerful and demanded that Jonah to pray to him to perform the same miracle as at the Red Sea in the days of Moses.

Jonah wanted the sailors to kill him by hurling him into the raging sea, but the sailors refused to perform such a cruel act, even after the lot confirmed Jonah’s guilt. Even when they saw no other way of saving their lives, they hesitated. They first immersed him only up to his knees. It did not work. Then they did so until his navel with the same result. Then to the neck, but the storm continued. So, reluctantly, they hurled him into the sea.

God created the large fish during the six days of creation. It was as large as a huge synagogue, and Jonah could sit comfortably in it. He could see out of the fish’s eyes, which were like windows. There was a diamond in the fish that gave off as much light as the noon-day sun. The fish took Jonah on a trip around the world so that he could see many impressive sights, including the Red Sea where God performed the miracle of splitting the sea. Jonah was so comfortable that he did not want to leave the fish. So God removed Jonah from that fish, which was male, and transferred him to another that was a pregnant female and not comfortable. “These miracles induced the ship’s crew to abandon idolatry, and they all became pious proselytes in Jerusalem.”

Jonah traveled to Nineveh. His voice was so loud that despite the city being so huge – a three days journey by foot – all the people in it heard his prophecy. The king of Nineveh not only sat on ashes, he rolled about the dust of the highways. The king ordered that the people fast foe three days. The people of Nineveh cried out to God and made their cattle cry by separating mother animals from their young. The penance of the Ninevites went so far that some inhabitants even demolished their palaces in order to return a single brick taken improperly to its rightful owner.

It wasn’t only the heat that bothered Jonah when the gourd that protected him died. The heat within the fish was so hot that Jonah’s hair fell out and he was plagued by swarms of insects. The gourd protected him from both the heat and the insects.

The repentance of the Ninevites was not complete. After forty days, they reverted and resumed their evil behavior. God punished them as Jonah predicted: they were swallowed up by the earth.

Seeing that God forgave the Ninevites for their misdeeds, Jonah pleaded with God to forgive him for his flight. God compensated Jonah for his suffering in the fish by exempting him from death. He entered paradise while he was alive.

Jonah’s wife was also known for her piety. She became known for making pilgrimages to Jerusalem “a duty which, by reason of her sex, she was not obliged to fulfill. On one of these pilgrimages it was that a prophetical spirit first descended upon Jonah.”


Explanations in the Babylonian Talmud

The Babylonian Talmud, like the Midrashim, also contains imaginative tales and Maimonides’ statement about accepting the Midrash as being true applies to these tales as well. 

Sanhedrin 89b states that usually a prophet who suppresses his prophecy is flogged, and references Jonah,[5] but does not state that Jonah was flogged.

The Talmud continues and states that “Jonah was originally told that Nineveh would be turned, but (the word turned was unclear, he) did not know whether for good or for evil.”[6]

Nedarim 38a states “All the prophets were wealthy,” including Jonah. The Talmud basis its conclusion that Jonah was rich on Jonah 1:3 which states that Jonah found a ship sailing to Tarshish and he paid its fare. “Rabbi Yochanan observed: ‘He paid for the hire of the entire ship.’ Rabbi Romanus said: ‘The ship’s hire was four thousand gold denarii’ (a huge sum).”

Erubin 96a discusses whether women are obligated to observe biblical positive commands that are not limited to a particular time. It mentions that King Saul’s daughter wore tephilin (traditionally worn only by men) “and the sages did not prevent her, and the wife of Jonah attended the festival pilgrimage and the sages did not prevent her.[7]

Mishnah Taanit 2:1 discusses the order of the worship service for fast days. Among much else, it states that the people placed wood ashes on their heads just as the people of Nineveh did, and God saw the Ninevites’ sackcloth and their fasting and that they turned from their evil ways and did not destroy Nineveh.[8] It mentions the requirement to recite seven prayers and that the sixth ends with the plea: “He who answered Jonah in the belly of the fish, he shall answer you and hearken this day to the voice of your cry.”

Taanit 17a queries why is Jonah mentioned in the sixth prayer while David and Solomon who lived before him is cited in the seventh prayer? It answers: The sages wanted to conclude the seven prayers with “Blessed are you Lord who has mercy upon the earth.” The Soncino translation of the Talmud[9] explains in a note that “earth” in this instance refers to Israel and it was “David and Solomon who were the founders of the Jewish kingdom and prayed for its welfare.”

Megillah 31a contains the rule that on the Day of Atonement we read the book of Jonah as the haphtarah after reading the laws of the forbidden marriages from Leviticus 18.[10]


[1] The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1946.

[2] Elisha prophesied to the Northern Kingdom of Israel for sixty years 892-832. Many think that Jonah in this book lived and prophesied to Jeroboam II in the Northern Kingdom. Jeroboam II lived between 786-753, over a century later.

[3] Neither this nor the following events are in the Bible.

[4] The Bible says “cried out.”

[5] There is no evidence that any prophet was flogged for suppressing a prophecy.

[6] Meaning, whether the city would be turned (destroyed) or the people would turn and act properly. This statement does not help clarify the story. It apparently helps support why Jonah was not flogged: because his prophecy was unclear.

[7] There is no mention in the Bible that Michal wore tephilin or that Jonah’s wife attended the festival in Jerusalem and presumably offered a sacrifice there. There is no explicit mention of tephilin in the Bible or any indication that there were “sages” who could have stopped Michal and Jonah’s wife or that the rule about women and positive commands existed during these early periods.

[8] Christians continue the ancient practice on Ash Wednesday, but Jews do not.

[9] The Babylonian Talmud, Seder Moed, Taanit, The Soncino Press, London, 1938, page 80.

[10] Soncino explains that Jonah is read because it “speaks of repentance.” Actually the word “repentance” is not found in the book. It is inferred from the Ninevites changing their behavior. Rashi states that the section concerning forbidden marriages is read because the temptation to commit sexual offences is particularly strong. Cf. Tosaphot.