Yom Kippur (Sefer Yonah) Part 3

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

by: Moshe Abelesz

Students discover why the argument between God and Yonah is relevant to Yom Kippur.


In this lesson, the students continue to 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.

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

  • Copies of Sefer Yonah
  • Worksheets


1. Continuation of working with worksheet. In hevrutot, students should review chapters 3 and 4 of Sefer Yonah and answer questions 7-11, quoting from the text to explain their answers.

2. After completion, review answers,and promote further discussion with the students.

Question 7

Yonah is so distressed about the way in which God runs the world that he is prepared to die. God therefore must explain to him why He tries to be as merciful as He can be.

a) A kikayon is a desert bush that grows very quickly. It provided Yonah with shade as he watched over Ninveh, on a very hot day. The kikayon then died and Yonah had the hot sun beating down on his head, making him very uncomfortable.

b) God asked Yonah how he felt about the kikayon dying. Yonah said that he would like to die. For the first time we see God angry (“E-lohim”, the name of the God of Justice, as opposed to “Hashem” – the God of mercy, speaks for the first time). God (reverting to the “Shem Hashem”) then explains that Yonah cared about the kikayon which only lived for a day and in which he did not invest any effort. All the more so God cares for the 200,000 souls in Ninveh (and all the animals) who do not know the difference between their right and left hands, i.e. who are misguided beings. God wants Yonah to understand that He cares about all His creations and will always forgive them if He is given the chance. To help the students understand, compare God’s love for Niveh to a mother’s love for an abusive child. The child may be cruel and behave with total hatred to her, but if he were to show just one moment of repentance, the mother would accept him back with open arms.

Question 8

Yonah’s response is not given here and therefore we are unclear as to whether he accepted it or not. However, Yonah does appear in Kings II 14:25. In this section, he prophesizes to a wicked king of Israel, Yeravam ben Yoash, that God would restore Israel’s borders, because He had pity on Israel’s suffering. Therefore, it is possible that Yonah accepted this message, as he is a messenger of good news to a wicked king.

Question 9

One of the reasons we read this book on Yom Kippur is that Sefer Yonah is debate about God’s trait of justice versus his trait of mercy. Here we see how God represses His justice towards sinners. This is what we want God to do for us on Yom Kippur.

Question 10

This question aims to show an additional relationship between Sefer Yonah and Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur we recognize God as the master of the Universe and we crown him as our king.

Pesukim Episode God’s Majesty

1:4 & 15 The storm- God controls the sea and weather

1:7 The lottery- God controls fate

2:1 & 11 The fish swallows and spits out Yonah- God controls the animal kingdom

4:6 The kikayon provides shade for Yonah- God controls vegetation

4:7 The worm eats the kikayon’s roots- God controls land creatures

4:8 The sun beats down on Yonah- God controls the celestial orbs

Question 11

a) God does not control Yonah and the people of Ninveh. There is a discussion as to how much he controlled the sailors.

b) Human beings have free choice to do good or bad. The will of God will always be maintained but individuals can choose their direction. God does interfere in our lives whether through the weather, the animal kingdom, nature and other humans. They may all be messages that He sends us in order to make us consider and re-consider the direction that we are taking, but ultimately, we all have free will to make our own life choices.

3. Conclusion: In this lesson we have examined the message behind the story of Sefer Yonah and have seen that the main emphasis of the book is a debate between God and the prophet, regarding God’s traits of mercy and justice. Yonah wants God to behave in a just manner, which means punishing the people of Ninveh, whilst God would rather behave mercifully, thereby forgiving them. We have also seen how God acts as the master of the universe with Him having supreme control over all creation, save the free will of humanity. For all these reasons it is highly appropriate for Sefer Yonah to be read on Yom Kippur, the day we ask of God to behave mercifully towards us, and the day we recognize God’s majesty.