Yom Kippur (Sefer Yonah) Part 1

  • 40 minutes
  • Grades: 9-12
  • Lesson Plan

In this lesson, students read chapter one of Sefer Yonah and are introduced to the conflict between Yonah and God.


Sefer Yonah is read as the maftir to the Torah reading of Mincha on Yom Kippur. Students are probably familiar with the storyline, but very few have actually studied it in-depth. Since the story has an episode in which a big fish swallows Yonah, the book is not always taken seriously and its message is often overlooked.

In this lesson, the students examine and analyze the text of Sefer Yonah in order to fully understand one of its messages and why the text is read on Yom Kippur.

The lesson does not focus on Yonah and the fish, nor Yonah’s mission to Ninveh. Instead, the lesson focuses on one of the central themes of the book – the argument between Yonah and God, and the lesson that God tries to teach him.

It is important to avoid an in-depth discussion about whether the episode with the fish is an historical truth or not. The students can believe what they like on that subject; it is far more crucial that they recognize the message of the book.

Lesson objectives

The student will be able to…

1) Recount the story of Sefer Yonah (peshat) including the struggle between God and Yonah
2) Explain why the story is read on Yom Kippur
3) Describe one of the central messages of Sefer Yonah (that God acts mercifully and that He controls all creation, with the exception of free will)


The student will…

1) Develop hevrutah study skills
2) Develop text analysis skills


The student will appreciate the text position that…

1) God is the ultimate arbiter of justice
2) God is all merciful
3) God controls the world, but allows Man to have freedom of choice
4) the value of makhloket leshem shamayim (lit. arguments for the sake of heaven) and how through these our understanding of God increases
5) The power of tefillah (prayer) and teshuva (repentence) to overturn a bad decree

Resources & Equipment needed

  • Overhead
  • Map of Europe
  • Copies of Sefer Yonah
  • Worksheets


1. In hevrutot, students should read through chapters 1 and 2 of Sefer Yonah and work through relevant questions on worksheet, quoting from the text to explain their answers.

2. After completion, review answers, promoting further discussion with the students. For the chart in question 1, fill in table on the board or use an overhead projector.

Question 1

This chapter describes how Yonah tried to avoid fulfilling God’s will. At this point, no explanation is given as to why Yonah wanted to evade his responsibility to God. However, it is clear that Yonah is prepared to die (he has no idea that a fish will swallow him and that he would live inside it) in order to escape from this mission. It will not be until chapter 4 that Yonah explains himself.

The students will probably ask:

a) Why did God tolerate Yonah’s behavior?

b) Why didn’t God find someone else to do the job?

a) This argument between God and Yonah was important. Yonah had a point and God did not want to disregard it. On the contrary, God wanted Yonah to understand why he was wrong.

b) Yonah’s argument is still relevant today. God wants the readers of this story to understand the argument and to acknowledge the message of this dialectic, something we would not have, had God absolved Yonah of the mission and replaced him with someone else. It is also important for the students to understand that argument can and should be a positive concept. The Talmud is full of makhlokot and through these discussions the halakha developed. Yonah’s argument with God, as we will see, was a makhloket leshem shamayim, and through it our understanding of God is increased.

Verses God’s Instruction/Action Yonah’s reaction Implications

1-3 “Go to Ninveh the great city, and call upon it, as their evil has risen up before me.” “Yonah flees to Tarshish away from God”… on a ship. Yonah does not want to carry out his mission. You may want to take a map of Europe and show the students where Tarshish (Spain) is in relation to Ninveh. Yonah appears to be running in the opposite direction. Yonah does not say anything to God, but just flees. It is clear that Yonah objects to his mission. By going to Tarshish, he is running away from God and his mission. At this point the students might attempt to give reasons as to why Yonah does not want to go to Ninveh. They may cite the midrash that maintains that Yonah did not want to humiliate Israel, as they did not repent when asked to, but the gentiles did, or that Yonah wanted Ninveh destroyed so that it would not destroy Israel, or a host of other reasons. All these reasons have truth in them (different midrashim are trying to teach different lessons), but mention that Yonah himself gives the reason why he disobeyed God (and it is not either of these reasons), but we don’t find it out until chapter 4. The students should have patience.

4-5 God creates a storm Yonah goes to the far recesses of the ship and goes to sleep Yonah is once again trying to run away from God Yonah can see that his original plan failed. He acknowledges that the storm was God’s means of preventing him from escaping. However, rather than giving into God’s will, Yonah continues to disobey Him. Whilst everyone is on the deck of the ship trying fight the storm, Yonah goes to the far reaches of the ship, where no one would look for him. He then goes into a deep sleep (note the word: “”vayeradem” denoting deep sleep and not: “vayishan“). By going to sleep, Yonah is saying that he will continue to ignore God. The storm gives Yonah a message only whilst he is awake to see it, however, by going to sleep, Yonah cannot see or fear the storm and, hence his insubordination continues.

6 The captain wakes Yonah up and tells Yonah to pray to his god Yonah does not respond God again, reminds Yonah of his mission, Yonah again disobeys The captain probably did not know that he was acting as a messenger of God to Yonah, but nevertheless, he stops Yonah from escaping from God by waking him up and telling him to pray to his god. Yonah once again sees that his plan has failed; nevertheless, he does not do teshuva. He does not even respond to the captain and he certainly does not pray to God, but continues to defy Him. It is possible that Yonah was prepared for the ship to sink and for everyone to die rather than go to Ninveh. It is clear that Yonah sorely disagrees with what God has asked him to do. Perhaps he does not believe that God would allow innocents to die just to punish him. God would eventually have to give in to Yonah, making him the victor of the argument.

7-12 The sailors draw lots and discover that Yonah is the cause of the storm Yonah advises the sailors to throw him into the sea Yonah would rather die than go to Ninveh Do sailors normally draw lots to blame an individual whenever they encounter a storm? The Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer (as quoted in the Radak) writes: “A great storm came unto them, but on their right and on their left, all other ships passed by safely in calm waters – only the ship which Yonah had boarded experienced terrible distress.” Nevertheless, drawing lots is hardly scientific; the lot would have to fall on someone? If we look carefully at the text it writes: …they drew lots (i.e. numerous times) and the lot (i.e. each lot) fell on Yonah”. Yonah once more sees that his plan has failed he has nowhere to escape. He is cornered by the sailors. When they ask him: “What should we do in order to stop the storm?” his response should be that he will pray to God, promising that he will do whatever is asked of him. However, Yonah tries one more act of defiance:“Throw me into the sea…” Yalkut Shimoni on Sefer Yonah comments: “Rabbi Natan said: Yonah wanted to kill himself in the sea.” Yonah would rather die than go ahead with God’s plan. By dying, Yonah would win the argument, as God would not be able to force him on his mission once he’s dead. Once more we see that Yonah is so against God’s plan that he is even prepared to die, rather than carry it out. You may want mention the Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer, which states that the sailors lowered Yonah into the sea bit by bit. Each time the storm ended, they brought Yonah back on board, but then the storm raged again until they finally just dropped Yonah in it. According to this idea, Yonah had further opportunities to repent, but refused to submit. Of course, God had other ideas in store for Yonah.

2:1-2 A large fish swallows Yonah After three days, Yonah prays to God Yonah gives in Yonah actually still fights God. For three days he does not want to surrender. However, three days inside the fish was just too much for him and finally he prays to God. Nevertheless, not once in his prayer, does Yonah agree to go to Ninveh, in fact even after he is released from the fish and safely back on dry land, Yonah still does not go.

Question 2

This question is merely to summarize the previous question into a short answer.

a) Yonah does not say what his problem is, but it is clear from his actions that he vehemently opposes what God has asked him to do. He begins by trying to ignore God, i.e. running away, going to sleep and ignoring the captain’s pleas for help. Eventually, he advises the sailors to kill him. This is so that he will not be able to do as God wishes.

b) As stated before, the author, nor Yonah, does not reveal to us until the end of the book why he disobeys God.

3. The rest of the worksheet will be completed in the next two lessons.