Sefer Yonah – Yaffo’s Lessons for the Less than Perfect

The city of Jaffa was a pivotal center of commerce from the earliest days of the modern reestablishment of the Jewish homeland. Agricultural schools were funded by Moses Montefiore in 1855 to train European Jews in modern farming methods, which led to the famed Jaffa orange industry. The ancient port of Yaffa, named either for its beauty or Noach’s son, Yefet, is one of the oldest in the world, and is mentioned several times in Tanakh. Yaffa was used as the port of entry for the Cedars of Lebanon in both the First and Second Batei Mikdash. Yaffa was also the port of embarkation for a famous passenger, the Prophet Yonah whom we read about in the haftarah during mincha on Yom Kippur.

One of the more prestigious honors of the Jewish year is “maftir Yonah” for its stirring account of the power of repentance. The storyline is well known: Hashem appears to His prophet Yonah ben Amitai and instructs him to go to Nineveh, Israel’s arch-enemy, and tell the people there to repent from their wicked ways. Instead of following orders, however, the prophet boards the first ship out of Yaffa harbor to Tarshish, in the opposite direction.

While aboard, a mighty storm develops and the sailors discern that it was on account of Yonah.  He is thrown overboard by his mates only to be swallowed up by a great fish and finally spit out onto dry land where the word of God returns to Yonah a second time.

When Yonah finally makes it to Nineveh and delivers the prophecy, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned!” (3:4), the wicked king and population of evil doers take Yonah’s warning with all due seriousness, and, immediately, embark on a national effort of repentance.  The sefer reports that, “God saw their deeds, that they repented from their evil way; and God relented concerning the calamity He had said He would bring upon them and did not act” (3:10).

Instead of celebrating his success, Yonah descends into depression. He is extremely bothered by God’s graciousness towards Nineveh. The haftara records, “this displeased Yonah greatly and it grieved him…please LORD take my life for I would rather die than live” (4:1,3) he cries out in despair. Why would the man of God be disappointed with such seemingly righteous behavior?

Upon closer examination, the teshuva of the people from Nineveh seems to be deficient. They did not reverse their behavior for positive reasons, on account of a love for God, truth, and kindness; instead, as the Navi writes, they instructed “he who knows [what sins he has committed], let him repent and God will be relentful; He will turn away from His burning wrath so that we perish not” (3:9).  Apparently, their reversal was in order to avoid punishment–what we would call teshuva mi’yirah.

Additionally, as the Malbim notes, the people of Nineveh repented only in their actions, for example, by returning stolen items; however, they did not change their mindset, and they continued to serve idols. Furthermore, the mepharshim note that Yonah foresaw that Nineveh would ultimately harm the Jewish people, and he was upset that Hashem would spare them, particularly in light of their incomplete, less-than-ideal teshuva.

By reading Sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur, we can internalize an important lesson for those who are engaged in teshuva. In Hashem’s mercy, even incomplete teshuva is eagerly embraced.  Even if we are motivated for the wrong reasons, Hashem will still accept our less-than-perfect efforts.

In 1890, the Odessa Committee, officially known as the ‘Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine’ established in office in Jaffa to welcome immigrants from the First Aliyah, also known as the Agricultural Aliyah. These Eastern European Jews were fleeing from violent pogroms and the harsh discriminatory May Laws which severely limited Jewish rights in Russia. They were not necessarily coming to Israel for lofty spiritual or even national intentions.


From their offices in Jaffa, the Odessa Committee assisted settlement societies in purchasing land and establishing agricultural moshavot. Despite, perhaps, the less than ideal motivations of those who arrived in the First Aliyah, their teshuva – return – to the Land of Israel, which we described previously as an integral part to communal teshuva, was a vitally important step in settling the Land of Israel. Like in Sefer Yonah, Hashem continuously embraces those who return to Him, despite our shortcomings. May we all merit such an embrace this Yom Kippur and sealed in the Book of Life.