May 29, 2024
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Reviewing “Depths of Yonah: Unleashing the Power of Your Yom Kippur” by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyomin Jachter. 182 pages, ISBN: 9780464990123, 2018.

The biblical book of Yonah has such a good story, which raises so many interesting ideas, that most people don’t look beyond the summary points. Add to that its placement in shul—Yom Kippur afternoon when the full force of the fast is upon us, with only a few days until Sukkot begins—we lack the time or initiative to delve into the book. In fact, the simple story as we know it is full of holes if we just look at the text closely.

For a few examples: As a storm tosses the boat, all the sailors pray to their gods while Yonah the prophet goes to his room in the bottom of the boat to take a nap (1:5). Is that the way a man of God acts? Yonah, while still in the fish, says that God answered his prayer (2:3)—but he was still in the fish. In response to the prophet’s rebuke, the people of Nineveh fast and force their animals to fast (3:7)—what purpose is served by the animal cruelty? God’s response to a suicidal Yonah is to ask “are you sufficiently angry?” (4:4). That seems like the exact opposite of the proper way to respond to someone in such a compromising mental state.

These are just some of the fantastic questions raised in “Depths of Yonah: Unleashing the Power of Yom Kippur,” by the father-son team of Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter. The book is essentially a verse by verse commentary on the text but in a completely different format. Each of the biblical book’s chapters has a section in this book, with short chapters raising questions and exploring different answers. The authors stick to peshat, a plain reading of the text. Primarily, they use the commentaries found on the page of the standard Malbim Mikraot Gedolot plus Abarbanel, JPS (written by Prof. Uriel Simon) and Da’at Mikra. But this is not just a survey of interpretations; it is a class in how to study a biblical book.

Rabbi Jachter teaches Yonah to his high school class at Torah Academy of Bergen County. Each short chapter of a few pages (easy-to-read in short sessions) contains a discussion on a subject in the text or raised by the text. The authors discuss what prompted the commentator’s interpretation and whether it makes sense textually, psychologically and theologically. This book is full of the tough questions teenagers ask with thoughtful answers, often proposed by their classmates. This is important to note; the authors are very generous with credit, frequently mentioning students and colleagues who asked good questions or offered viable answers.

Readers might be familiar with Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank’s Mikra’ei Kodesh series. He was the chief rabbi of Jerusalem in the early-20th century and his home was a gathering place of great scholars. We see in his writings a question raised and then different answers offered by the famous rabbis sitting around his table. Rabbi Jachter and son do the same to the high school students and teachers with whom they discussed the book of Yonah. The result is an easy-to-read, profound textual commentary in a light, conversational tone, with different people joining the discussion.

Because the authors used many commentators, they often propose multiple answers to a question. But they do not simply list the interpretations; they engage with them and build them into alternate visions. On Yonah’s nap during the boat storm, the authors explore five possible explanations. 1) Ibn Ezra characteristically suggests that Yonah was seasick, a simple answer that offers little to the story. 2) Rav Yosef Kara, the biblical commentator who was a student of Rashi, explains that Yonah thought that God would not listen to his prayers due to his having fled from his divine mission. This is a natural reaction but the exact opposite of reality—God wants those distant to seek Him out through prayer.

3) Malbim suggests that Yonah was planning his death. He wanted to be sure that if the boat capsized, he would be trapped inside it. In other words, Yonah was not interested in salvation but rather the opposite. That is why he did not pray. 4) Malbim further suggests, along the same line, that Yonah understood that the storm was due to his sins. If he was at the bottom of the boat, he would die first as the water seeped in and then God would not need to kill the sailors. Even during his rebellion against God, Yonah admirably tried to save other people.

5) Rabbi Jachter’s students, particularly Akiva Motechin, point out that Yonah’s descent to the bottom of the boat is a continuation of his flight from God. Yonah tried to go as far as possible away from the storm, just like his trip to Tarshish, which is at the extreme western edge of the Mediterranean region. Yonah sought to flee God in the extreme.

Rabbi Jachter points out that Yonah is modeling the counterproductive behavior of someone feeling alienated. He is following a damaging pattern of extreme behavior. What better day to think about breaking this destructive chain of behavior than Yom Kippur?

By Rabbi Gil Student


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