Sefer Yonah, Part I: Tarshish Co-Authored by Rabbi Chaim Jachter & Binyamin Jachter ‘17


The following article is the first part of a series on Sefer Yonah, presented by Rabbi Chaim Jachter and Binyamin Jachter. See next week’s issue of Kol Torah on Parashiyot Tazria and Metzora for Part II.

Tarshish, where is it?  From the fact that Pasuk 3 names Tarshish as the place Yonah sought to flee, there must be some significance to this intended destination.  In order to determine its significance we must first endeavor to discover where Tarshish is located.  The fact that our Pasuk mentions Tarshish no less than three times adds to the urgency to discover an explanation. 

Approach #1 - Rashi

Rashi (to Pasuk 3) writes that Tarshish is a sea.  Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel follows this approach as well.  According to this explanation, this indicates that Yonah does not care about the ship’s destination.  Rather, he simply was desperate to flee the Land of Israel. Rashi cites a Midrash which presents a well-known Mashal (parable): A slave flees his master who is a Kohen and he runs to a cemetery, a Tamei (impure) place where his master is forbidden to enter. The master says I cannot retrieve you but I can send others to get you. Chutz LaAretz (outside Israel) is the Tamei place Yonah believes he can escape Hashem and the storm is the agent which is sent to recover the slave. 

Approach #2 - Da’at Mikra (three options)

The Da’at Mikra is well-described at Wikipedia as “a series of volumes of Hebrew-language biblical commentary published by the Jerusalem-based Mossad Harav Kook and constitutes a cornerstone of contemporary Israeli Orthodox Jewish bible scholarship.     The singularity of Da’at Mikra lies in its combination of a traditional outlook and the findings of modern research. The Da’at Mikra editors have sought to present an interpretation based primarily upon Peshat — the direct, literal reading of the text — as opposed to Derash. They do so by incorporating geographic references, archaeological findings and textual analysis, presenting a clear link between the commentary's traditional approach and contemporary methodology”[1].  Editors of the Da’at Mikra series include the following acclaimed scholars: Professor Yehuda Elitzur of Bar-Ilan University, the International Bible Contest champion and Bible scholar Amos Hacham, Rav Sha’ul Yisra’eli and Rav Mordechai Breuer.

Thus, Da’at Mikra is a perfect source to help us in our search for the location of Tarshish.  Da’at Mikra notes that the word Tarshish refers to the sea[2] and thus a number of cities that lie near the sea are called Tarshish.  It also notes that it is not clear which Tarshish is the one referred to in Sefer Yonah.  It offers three possibilities:  One is a Tarshish (or Tarsos) located one hundred and thirty kilometers northwest of Alexandria (located in the south of contemporary Turkey[3]).  A second possibility is a city located on the southern coast of Spain, near the Straits of Gibraltar[4].  Da’at Mikra notes that some suggest a third possibility and identify the Tarshish of Sefer Yonah as a different city located along the Mediterranean coast. 

Why is the location important for us to know? Da’at Mikra explains that Yonah is heading in the opposite direction of Nineveh.   Nineveh lies to the east of Israel where Yonah is located and Yonah attempts to escape to the west.  If the location in Spain is accurate, this expresses the rebellion best because that was regarded as the farthest western point on earth during the time of Sefer Yonah.

Professor Simon - The Spain Option

Professor Uriel Simon argues for the Spain identification.  He notes

“In three different passages (Yishayahu 60:6-9, Yechezkeil 38:13 and Tehillim 72:10) the full geographical extent of the known world is delimited by Tarshish at one end and Sheva at the other.  Given that the latter lies in the east (in the southern Arabian peninsula), at the end of the overland caravan route, the other must lie in the uttermost west, at the end of the maritime trade route”. 

Professor Simon argues that the threefold mention of Tarshish in Pasuk 3 stresses the point that Yonah “was not merely seeking to leave the Land of Israel by sea and flee to whatever destination the first ship might carry him, but in fact was trying to sail to the farthest possible point from his assigned destination”.  Indeed, the Spain option gives you the most clues. It's in the opposite direction of his mission, it's the most drastic of places to go, and gives him peace of mind that the status quo will continue to exist just as he wants

Supporting the Spain Option

Yonah most certainly presents throughout the Sefer as a character who goes to extremes.  In both Perek 1 and Perek 4 makes crystal clear his willingness to die for his beliefs.  Despite the great pressure placed on him in Perek 1 by both the storm and the sailors to repent, Yonah refuses to relent.  In Perek 2 he does not call out to Hashem until he has spent three full days in the large fish.  Chazal (Nedarim 38a) understand that Yonah paid the fare for the entire ship, expending an enormous sum to achieve his goals.  Understanding Yonah as fleeing all the way to Spain is quite compatible with his temperament and personality.  

Implications of the Spain Option

If we understand that Yonah fled all the way to Spain, the Ibn Ezra and Spain Peshat/literal explanation of the phrase “VaYitein Secharah”, and he paid its fare is sensible.  Chazal as quoted understand that “its fare” refers to Yonah paying for the entire ship’s fare.  Radak explains this as an expression of Yonah wishing to leave as soon as possible.  Torah Academy students suggest it shows Yonah’s desire to reduce the number of people he would expose to danger by his undertaking a journey which is likely to incur the wrath of God. 

Ibn Ezra and Radak offer a literal explanation of “its fare” that Yonah paid for his and only his fare.  The question one might ask why then does the Tanach record this seemingly trivial fact[5].  This is not a problem if one adopts the Tarshish as Spain option.  A trip to Spain in ancient times took a year, as reported in Bava Batra 38a.  Professor Simon explains this based on frequent stops at ports for supplies and trade.  Such an ambitious adventure was made with expectations and hopes to make large profit.  As such, Yonah would have had to expend a very large sum to pay for such a journey.  Thus, recording Yonah’s paying such a huge sum expresses his burning desire to flee as far away from Nineveh as possible at the time. 

Another implication of the identification of Tarshish in Sefer Yonah as Spain is in regards to the cargo shed by the sailors in their attempt to save themselves from the storm (1:5).  If the ship was destined for Spain it must have been loaded with an enormous and very expensive cargo.  Thus, the shedding of such valuables must have not a matter taken lightly at all.  This underscores the extreme danger in which the sailors felt and the profound relief upon their survival[6]. 


According to Rashi, Yonah fleeing to Tarshish is all about avoidance but according to Da’at Mikra and Professor Simon it is about Yonah getting as far as possible away from Eretz Yisrael.  Yonah seeks to do the exact opposite of what Hashem commands, as Yonah is a person of extremes.  Yonah rarely rebels against Hashem, but when he does rebel against Hashem, it is done in the most intense manner possible.  

[1] Wikipedia notes “There has been some suggestion that the Da’at Miqra‘s dualistic approach reflects an underlying polemic against biblical criticism, without directly addressing the views and queries of bible critics but via a commentary aimed at debunking their methodology”.

[2] Da’at Mikra notes that in Greek the word Talsos means sea.  Exchange the letter l with an r and one is left with the name of the city Tarsos, one of Da’at Mikra’s candidates for the identification of the Tarshish of Sefer Yonah.  Da’at Mikra notes that Targum Yonatan translates Tarshish as sea every time it appears in Tanach, when it refers to a location.  It also notes that Onkelos translates the word Tarshish, one of the stones included in the Choshen (Shemot 28:20) as “Kerum Yama”, the color of the sea.       

[3] This city is described at,_Mersin.  The classic Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 9:10:2) identifies Tarshish of Sefer Yonah with this city. 

[4] This city is called Tartessos described at  

[5] This question does not impose a problem for Ibn Ezra who understands that Diberah Torah KeLashon Bnei Adam, the Torah speaks as an ordinary person would and not every word carries profound significance. 

[6] The shedding of the cargo must have significant spiritual import, otherwise, it is difficult to understand why it is mentioned in Sefer Yonah.  The sailors made a great spiritual advance as part of their shedding their precious cargo.  Some are so weighed down with very expensive items it prevents them from scaling and ascending the mountain of God (paraphrasing Tehillim 24:3).  Rav Avraham Pam tells of a Rosh Yeshiva who visited a Talmid who amassed considerable wealth and lived in an opulent home.  The Rosh Yeshiva noted the very expensive wall paper and bemoaned the fact that the time the Talmid could have invested to master Masechet Berachot or Masechet Ketubot, was devoted to amassing wealth to afford such costly furnishings.  The sailors’ shedding of the very expensive cargo certainly fits with the Rosh Yeshiva’s perspective. 

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