Commentary Magazine

Yom Kippur in Nineveh

Reading the Torah is the heart of the synagogue service. That, even more than prayer, was what the synagogue was invented for, probably during the Babylonian Exile 2,500 years ago. Reading and expounding the Torah are so much the central purpose of the synagogue that the “dim religious light” of stained-glass windows is not for us. “Let there be light” is more like it.

What part of the Pentateuch shall be read on an ordinary Sabbath is determined by its place in the annual cycle—which over the centuries slowly replaced a triennial cycle—from Genesis 1: 1 to Deuteronomy 34: 12. For holy days, whether falling on a Sabbath or not, it was the Rabbis (and their predecessors) who determined what the Pentateuchal lection should be, the principle then being relevance rather than sequence. When the haftarah, the Prophetical lection following the Pentateuchal one, was instituted, it was apparently for the reader to choose. (Luke has Jesus given the book of Isaiah to read from on a Sabbath, but in the book Jesus reads what he wishes.) Gradually the Rabbis fixed the haftarot for certain days, and finally for all. For Yom Kippur, the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, the Rabbis must have fixed the Prophetical readings early.

Everything about the Yom Kippur Scriptures is unusual or unique. On Yom Kippur there is a full reading in the afternoon as well as the morning. On Yom Kippur a haftarah consists of an entire book, Jonah—followed by three verses from Micah. (The five Megillot, which severally are read on the Pilgrimage Festivals, the 9th of Av, and Purim, are not haftarot or even Prophetical, but Writings; and though Obadiah, only 21 verses long altogether, is read by Sephardim on a Sabbath shortly before Hanukkah, Ashkenazim are then reading from Hosea.) On Yom Kippur the afternoon haftarah is longer than the Pentateuchal lection. And on Yom Kippur the haftarot appear to contradict the Pentateuchal lections they follow, instead of paralleling them. The Yom Kippur readings call attention to themselves in an especially emphatic way.

The morning Pentateuchal lection, priestly and ritualistic, consists of Leviticus 16 and Numbers 29: 7-11, which the Mishnah Yoma tells us the High Priest used to read or recite in the Second Temple on Yom Kippur. All of Yoma, until nearly the end, is in the same spirit, full of slaughterings and countings and sprinklings—one, one and one, one and two, one and three . . . one and seven; from above downward, except when from below upward; from northeast to northwest to southwest to southeast. But the Rabbis, who codified those laws and who ordained that those numbing passages from the Pentateuch should be read in our synagogues, also selected Isaiah 57:14-58: 14 for the Prophetical accompaniment:

. . . For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and lofty place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit. . . . Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? . . . Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, Here I am.

I have said that Isaiah appears to contradict the Pentateuch’s priestly ritualism, but that is a modern’s bias. The Rabbis saw no contradiction, only completion. In the last paragraph of Yoma they have the same kind of contradiction-completion to their own ritualism:

If a man says, “I shall sin and repent, and sin again and repent again,” he will be given no chance to repent. If he says, “I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement,” then the Day of Atonement effects no atonement. For transgressions that are between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has satisfied his fellow.1

The Rabbis were serious about every last detail of the ritual, but they were as explicit as they could be that all that was nothing without the right inward disposition and the right conduct. So they made the reading about loosing the bonds of wickedness follow the reading about bullocks, goats, and incense; and in our Rabbinical prayer service we say: “Repentance, prayer, and works of justice and mercy [tsedakah] can avert the harsh judgment.”



The afternoon readings are more enigmatic: Pentateuch—Leviticus 18; Prophets—Jonah, followed by Micah 7: 18-20. In the morning the Pentateuchal lection stated the ritual laws and the Prophetical lection the spiritual or moral laws. But Leviticus 18 is about chastity and un-chastity, and why single that out for Yom Kippur? And what has Jonah to do either with that or with the day?

Leviticus 18 is a unit of three parts. Exordium (five verses):

. . . You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. . . . You shall . . . keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the LORD.

Body (eighteen verses) : Incest is defined by enumeration and prohibited, including marriage with living sisters, and prohibitions then follow against lying with a menstruous woman, adultery, child sacrifice, sodomy, and bestiality. Peroration (seven verses):

Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am casting out before you defiled themselves; and the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and do none of these abnominations . . . lest the land vomit you out, when you defile it. . . . So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs which were practiced before you, and never to defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God.

The Rabbis did not pick this chapter to remind us that it is wholesome family life which has sustained the Jews, as the embarrassed editor-translator of one widely used Mahazor writes. (He summarizes, delicately, instead of translating.) Leviticus 18 is there for more compelling reasons.

Whether or not those scholars are right who think that Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (which begins five days after Yom Kippur) were originally one holiday, the month of Tishri, in which they fall, was the time of harvest and autumnal equinox. In the ancient world, and even in much more modern times, to celebrate the New Year of harvest and equinox with due rites would amount to what the Rabbis euphemistically called qallut rosh, levity. In a well-known passage in the Talmudic tractate Sukkah an old source says that the authorities had to try three ways of separating the sexes in the Temple before they were able to prevent qallut rosh, and in an equally well-known passage in the Mishnah Ta’anit we are told that on Yom Kippur itself the daughters of Jerusalem used to dance a courtship dance before the young men. While that is said approvingly—they are nice Jewish girls, exhorting the young men to consider family, not beauty—at an earlier time the character of the season’s jollity had disgusted the prophets. On Sukkot, in the Second Temple, there were water libations and torchlight processions, which are unmistakable fertility rites. (On one famous occasion, a Sadducee priest-king’s contempt for the libation provoked a riot, which he suppressed with great cruelty. The Pharisees favored the rite, not for its intrinsic merit but because they upheld the Unwritten Law—i.e., tradition—in principle.) Tishri was a time for being wary of fertility celebrations.



Theologically, Leviticus 18 is about paganism. It insists that pagans—Egyptians, Canaanites—are unchaste and depraved because their religion commands them to be, not because it fails to restrain them: to “do these abominations” and “practice these abominable customs” are “their statutes.” For the Bible, and the Rabbis, un-chastity and depravity are the piety of paganism.

Were the Bible and the Rabbis unfair? We know that brother-sister marriage was an honored tradition of Egyptian royalty. We know that male cult-prostitutes—qedeshim, related to qadosh, “holy”!; “sodomites” in the King James and Jewish Publication Society versions—were an honored class of the Canaanite temple personnel. They are forbidden in Deuteronomy, where they are also called dogs and an abomination to the Lord, but in II Kings we learn that when King Josiah of Judah reformed the Temple, “he broke down the houses of the qedeshim which were in the House of the Lord.” The scholars quote Lucian of Samosata as reporting that in the 2nd century of our era the services of qedeshim were still a “very sacred custom” for the pious pagans of Hierapolis, in Syria.

In numbers, the Israelites “began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” Here, as commonly in the Bible, zanah, “to play the harlot,” is both literal and figurative. The standard metaphor for infidelity to God is marital infidelity.

But the decisive proof that Leviticus 18 is concerned with paganism rather than with sexuality as such is its prohibition of child sacrifice, in the center of the five prohibitions after the long, multiple prohibition of incest, and the only one of them ending with “I am the Lord.” It was not by fun and games alone that pagans celebrated or invoked fertility. Robert Graves has made us aware of this for ancient Greece, and essentially the same paganism, i.e., fertility religion, prevailed throughout the Mediterranean. The Carthaginians, who still called themselves Canaanites in St. Augustine’s time, sacrificed human beings well into the Rabbinic and Christian period, centuries after their conquest by Rome. Kings and founders of cities, of course, were under a special obligation to assure the fertility of their people, the fertility of livestock and crops, and the general well-being. In II Kings, when Mesha, king of Moab, saw that his battle with the Israelites was going against him, “he took his eldest son who was to reign in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall.” Kings Ahaz and Manasseh of Judah—both, especially Manasseh, under pagan influence—burned their sons as offerings. The prophets repeatedly accuse commoners, too, of sacrificing their children.

That seems to have been true also of the popular, loyal, unpagan Israelite religion, when it was yet unaffected by prophets or reformers and as it was practiced before the Babylonian Exile. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to keep a vow to the Lord, as the pagan Agamemnon was prepared to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis at Aulis. When Hiel rebuilt Jericho, “he laid its foundations at the cost of . . . his first-born, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son.” Above all, there is that dark saying in Ezekiel: “Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their firstborn . . .” (Micah 6:7 suggests the same).

The most probable time for the choice of Leviticus 18 as a Yom Kippur reading was the period of or soon after Ezra-Nehemiah, the latter part of the 5th century B.C.E. Fertility religion was then not merely a vestige or a memory, as it was to be in Rabbinic times. It was an ever-present danger, the faith and practice of those who had not gone into exile—the Old Believers, as we might call them—and of the local women whom the returning Judaeans first married and then were forced to banish as seductresses. This Yom Kippur reading, further, is linked to the Rosh Ha-shanah Pentateuchal reading(s), which must have been fixed at the same time—the account in Genesis of the Binding of Isaac and God’s command to our father Abraham not to sacrifice his son, but a ram. It did not trouble the (post-) Ezranic religious authorities that by the standards of Leviticus 18, to which they themselves gave such prominence, Jacob was guilty of incest in marrying two living sisters, Leah and Rachel. Their indifference is further proof that the un-chastity or depravity they were condemning was not, or not only, the ordinary kind, but pagan “statutes.” Obviously, no one could think of Jacob as a pagan.



This does not explain Jonah as the afternoon haftarah. To be sure, there is a lexical tie between Leviticus 18 and Jonah, in that they have the verb qy’, “to vomit” or “to spew,” four of the six times it occurs in the Pentateuch and Prophets (nine in the entire Bible). Sometimes that sort of thing seems to be the only reason why a haftarah was chosen—e.g., Hosea 2: 1-22 for Numbers 1: 1-4: 20, which do not have much more in common than the noun mispar, “number,” and the verb paqad, “to count” in Numbers and “to punish” in Hosea—but Yom Kippur would require a better link. If the intention was to choose a Prophetical lection that would strengthen the Pentateuchal denunciation of un-chastity-depravity-paganism, other Prophetical passages are more appropriate than Jonah—passages from Hosea or Jeremiah, for instance.

It does not matter whether, as most scholars believe, Jonah is late, dating from the 5th or 4th century B.C.E., or, as Ezekiel Kaufmann argues, considerably earlier. It does not matter that its Nineveh is an abstraction and not the real capital of Assyria that was destroyed late in the 7th century B.C.E. For the Rabbis it was the book of Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet of the Lord mentioned in II Kings. Jonah is not about the great fish. It is about God’s eagerness for the repentance of men and women, so that He may forgive them—not Jews alone, but pagans also, and not ordinary pagans, but Assyrians, “the rod of My anger,” the militaristic scourge of the ancient world who destroyed the Northern Kingdom, exiled the ten tribes, besieged Jerusalem, and devastated Judah. God wants Jonah to summon Nineveh to repent and live, Jonah flees because he does not want Nineveh to live, and God, plucking Jonah from his ship, makes him go and preach. The Ninevites fast, repent, and are saved. Jonah, then, is about fasting, repentance, and salvation; and so is Yom Kippur.



Whoever the author of Jonah was, and whenever he lived, he must have wanted his readers to think of Abraham too, and especially of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. Jonah identifies himself to the sailors in a puzzling and striking way: “I am a Hebrew.” The only other personages the Bible calls Hebrews are Abraham, Joseph, and Moses: it was to Abraham that child sacrifice was first forbidden, and Joseph is linked to Moses in that the first leads the Israelites into Egypt and the second leads them out. Next, just before the exodus the last of the ten plagues strikes the Egyptians in the death of their first-born, “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.” The only other place in the Bible with that peculiar threefold composition of society—king, commoners, and cattle—is Jonah; but in Jonah the three classes fast, repent, and pray, and are saved.

Passover, the exodus festival, is in Nisan, and Rosh Ha-shanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are in Tishri. Tishri, as we have seen, is the time of a harvest and the autumnal equinox; and Nisan is the time of another harvest, of lambing, and of the vernal equinox. A Passover Pentateuchal lection tells of the death of the Egyptian first-born, to which the Yom Kippur haftarah of Jonah seems to refer, negatively, by stressing that God spared the Assyrians; and a Passover haftarah tells how King Josiah purged the Temple of its qedeshim, which seems to refer to the Pentateuch read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Further, Yom Kippur is about salvation and redemption, and the great historical event and paradigm of redemption is the exodus from Egypt, which Passover celebrates.

There is still another reason why the Pharisees, or their predecessors, were conscious of Passover when they decided the Scripture to be read on Yom Kippur. Egypt was an urgent political reality for them. After Alexander the Great died, his general Ptolemy became king of Egypt and his general Seleucus king of Syria and, for a time, Mesopotamia. Judaea, contested and fought over by the two dynasties, in the 3rd century B.C.E. was under the Ptolemies and in the first third of the 2nd century under the Seleucids, each uneasy about the Jews’ allegiance. A famous article by Louis Finkelstein in the Harvard Theological Review recalled those imperial rivalries to date the curious passage in the Passover Haggadah which says that Laban the Aramean, Jacob’s uncle and the father of his two wives, was worse than Pharaoh. Since Laban has nothing to do with Egypt and the exodus, what is he doing in the Haggadah? And why is it insisted that he was worse than Pharaoh? For the Ptolemies, Passover must have seemed anti-Egyptian. Laban is “the Aramean,” i.e., Syrian, and proclaiming the wickedness of the archetypal Syrian was an attempt to reassure the Ptolemies about the Jews. Hence that part of the Haggadah must be from the 3rd century B.C.E. On the other hand, Dr. Finkelstein writes in a later article in the same journal, the Haggadah’s quotation of Joshua’s epitome of God’s dealings with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, which emphasizes the patriarchs’ Mesopotamian origins, must be a pro-Seleucid gesture, and is to be dated in the first third of the 2nd century B.C.E.

In Hellenistic times, as for Herodotus earlier, “Assyria” was thought to be a variant of “Syria,” and to the Seleucids Jonah on Yom Kippur must have been as reassuring as Joshua on Passover. The Yom Kippur afternoon Pentateuch has the Egyptians as an example of abominable vice, while the haftarah shows that the God of the Jews loves the (As) Syrians. Jonah as a Yom Kippur haftarah, therefore, may also date from the first third of the 2nd century B.C.E.



The Rabbis—to use an anachronistic term for convenience—had to reckon with suspicious foreign rulers, but they must have longed for that verse in Isaiah to become a present reality: “Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My heritage.” It was they who chose Jonah as a Yom Kippur haftarah, and ideologically Jonah is universalist rather than particularist.

Jonah ends with God saying: “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” In the haftarah the Rabbis append to this the final three verses of Micah, of which the last is: “Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as Thou hast sworn to our fathers from the days of old.” If it is possible for Assyrians to be forgiven—pagans par excellence, and therefore practicers par excellence of all the abominations forbidden in Leviticus—how much more possible it must be for Jews!

(The Rabbis regard themselves as being in the line of descent from Ezra and Nehemiah, the ultra-particularists who invoked Deuteronomy’s injunction that “no Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD, even to the tenth generation” to make the Judaeans banish their foreign wives; but it was the Rabbis who selected Ruth for reading in the synagogue on Shavu’ot, and many scholars consider Ruth, together with Jonah and parts of Isaiah, to be a polemic against the narrowness of Ezra-Nehemiah. “Ruth the Moabitess” she is called, five times; and we are told that she is to be the great-grandmother of David, the king whose scion will be the Messiah. The book ends with “David.”)

Finally, for the Rabbis “much cattle” must have reinforced “persons who do not know their right hand from their left.” It would be too much to say that the Rabbis had a doctrine of sin that derived sin from ignorance or folly alone; but on Yom Kippur they were satisfied to plead ignorance, before the Tribunal on high, in extenuation of the people’s sins. The last verse of Jonah echoes the verse from Numbers that is constantly repeated in the Yom Kippur service: “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger who sojourns among them, because the whole people did erroneously” (my translation).

Is all this what the Rabbis really meant, or only what we would like them to have meant? The Mishnah being the Rabbis’ own codification of the law, let the Mishnah decide. We have seen that toward the end of Yoma the Rabbis teach that Yom Kippur is nothing without true repentance and that while God will forgive us for our intentions, it is by deeds that we must win the forgiveness of our fellows. And then, at the very end, we read (I am modifying Danby’s translation) :

R. Akiba said, Happy are you, O Israel! Before whom are you made clean, and who cleanses you? Your Father who is in heaven; as it is said [Ezekiel 36: 25], “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean.” And it further says [Jeremiah 17: 13], “O LORD, the hope [mikveh] of Israel.” As the mikveh [immersion pool for lustration] cleanses the unclean, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, cleanse Israel.

It has been argued that this is a later addition, missing from an early manuscript and inserted for the traditional purpose of ending a text with divere nehamah, words of consolation, in the same way that Amos, for instance, is made to end in words of consolation and the Wisdom of the Fathers in the verse from Exodus: “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever”; or for the purpose of ending with aggadah, the easier, nonlegal dicta, rather than halakhah, the difficult legal matter. But George Foot Moore considered this text to be authentic, and he was guided by Louis Ginzberg. In any event, R. Akiba’s saying is completely faithful to the Rabbinical spirit, down to the ritualization of the hope -mikveh and the spiritualization of the bath -mikveh. That is yet another contradiction-completion, like making Jonah follow Leviticus 18.

It is also like the relation between the ‘Avodah and the ‘Al het in our Yom Kippur service. The ‘Avodah—work, service, cultus—is a kind of long, versified paraphrase of Yoma, recalling the Temple and the sacrifices in detail. To pious Jews through the centuries, its recitation this day in the synagogue, on the principle of “so will we render for bullocks the offerings of our lips” (Hosea, JPS version), was an exalting thing, hard as that may be for us to believe. But over and over we also say the ‘Al het, the long, inclusive nostra culpa. The ‘Al het does not mention one ritual transgression. (“Eating and drinking” probably refers to intemperance rather than violations of kashrut.) The offense that recurs in it most often, under many synonyms, is leshon ha-ra’, an “evil tongue.”

After two thousand years of liturgical expansion, the basic structure and intent of our Yom Kippur service remain what they were in the time of the Rabbis. The last word is still Akiba’s.




1 From the Danby translation, modified slightly.

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