A Torah Academy of Bergen County alumnus was eager to know whether an Orthodox Jew is required to believe that Yonah truly was swallowed by a large fish and survived inside of it for three days. Indeed, it does seem to be quite a stretch of the imagination to believe this. The answer hinges upon when it is appropriate to interpret a portion of the Tanach in a non-literal manner.
Precedents for interpreting Tanach in a non-literal manner
Undoubtedly, certain phrases in the Torah are not to be taken literally. Chazal (Chullin 90b and Tamid 29a) explicitly state that the Torah occasionally uses hyperbole. A clear example of this is a Pasuk (Devarim 1:28) which refers to cities surrounded by walls that reach the heavens. Another Pasuk (Melachim Aleph 1:40) describes the earth cracking from the noise made by the party of Adoniyahu; this is another obvious exaggeration. These are by no means lies, since it is clear to any intelligent reader that these descriptions are hyperboles.
The first major authority to discuss this issue is Rambam, who develops this discussion in his great philosophical work, Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed). Rambam insists repeatedly in this volume (1:1-30) that Torah passages that suggest the corporeality of Hashem contradict fundamental logic (since Hashem cannot be restricted to a body), and therefore must be interpreted in a non-literal manner.
Moreover, Rambam believes that certain episodes in the Torah are not to be understood literally. For example, he interprets BeReishit Chapter 18 allegorically (ibid. 2:42), saying that the three angels must have appeared to Avraham Avinu in a vision because angels do not eat human food or even appear in a human form.
In this chapter of the Moreh Nevuchim Rambam writes that Yaakov Avinu’s wrestling with an angel was merely a prophetic vision, as was the story of Bilam’s talking donkey. Four chapters later, in Moreh Nevuchim 2:46, Rambam insists that various bizarre prophetic episodes such as Hoshei’a marrying a harlot (Hoshei’a 1-3) and Yishayahu walking barefoot and naked (Yishayahu 20) occurred only in a prophecy. Rambam forcefully argues, “Heaven forfend that Hashem would command His prophets to act in a psychotic manner.”
Even more shockingly, Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:22) endorses the opinion (presented in Bava Batra 15a) that the entire book of Iyov is merely a Mashal (parable). Rambam insists that “any intelligent person” would agree that the first two chapters of Iyov, which describe the Satan’s exchange with Hashem arguing against Iyov’s righteousness, are to be understood as a parable.
Rambam argues that the description of Iyov as living in the land of Utz (Iyov 1:1) clearly indicates that what follows is a parable. The land of Utz is not described elsewhere in Tanach as a place where event happen, but Utz is mentioned once as the name of one of the children of Avraham Avinu’s brother Nachor. The word Utz, Rambam argues, alludes to the word Eitzah (advice). Setting the scene of Sefer Iyov in its opening verse in the land of Utz indicates that the book is about offering advice, or insight, as to how we are to perceive Hashem’s judgment in the world.
Professor Uriel Simon - Yonah as an Allegory
Rambam does not address the issue of Yonah living in a fish for three days in the Moreh Nevuchim. Da’at Mikra, in its introduction to Sefer Yonah, notes that Ibn Caspi is the only classic authority who cites an opinion that the first two chapters of Sefer Yonah should be understood as having occurred only in a prophetic vision. The Da’at Mikra assumes that the Ibn Caspi refers to Rambam. Indeed, Rambam, towards the end of Moreh Nevuchim 2:46, writes, “And from what I have mentioned derive to that which I have not mentioned.”
Professor Uriel Simon vigorously argues that Sefer Yonah is meant to be taken as an allegory, similar to the Rambam’s approach to the book of Iyov. He contrasts Yonah with Megillat Esther, which he argues has all the hallmarks of an actual, historical story. In Megillat Esther, the name of the king is mentioned, the country he rules is noted, and a specific timeline is presented for the events of the story.
None of these hallmarks of a true story exist in Sefer Yonah. The name of the king is omitted, the kingdom of Assyria (of which Nineveh is the capital city) is not mentioned and no timeline is offered for the events recorded. Moreover, Professor Simon argues that the details are presented in a wildly unrealistic manner, such as the size of Nineveh being three days’ journey across, to stress that the story is not intended to be understood literally.
The Traditional Approach - Sefer Yonah as a True Story
Even the more rationally inclined commentators such as Ibn Ezra, Radak and Abarbanel understand all of Sefer Yonah, including the fish episode, as constituting an event that actually happened. Da’at Mikra cites a report printed in a 1927 issue of the Princeton Theological Review which records the saga of a sailor named John Ambrose who allegedly was swallowed by a whale and survived for three days inside the whale.
Needless to say, many are deeply skeptical about this report. Moreover, Radak and Abarbanel understand Yonah’s survival in the fish as a miraculous event. Thus, a natural explanation is, at best, unnecessary. Just as Hashem made the miracles of Keri’at Yam Suf (the Splitting of the Sea) and the revelation at Har Sinai, so too He made the many miracles recorded in Sefer Yonah.
Da’at Mikra notes that Chazal also understood the entirety of Sefer Yonah in a literal sense. The Mishnah (Ta’anit 2:4) notes that one of the Berachot recited on the seven intense fast days for rain is, “Mi She’Ana Et Yonah MiMe’ei HaDagah Hu Ya’aneh Etchem VeYishma BeKol Tza’akatchem HaYom HaZeh Baruch Atah Hashem Ha’Oneh Be’Eit Tzarah,” “The One who answered Yonah from the belly of the fish, He will answer you and hear your cries today; Blessed are you Hashem Who responds in a time of crisis.”
We may add that Rambam himself (Hilchot Ta’aniot 4:12) codifies this Beracha as normative Halacha. Thus, it appears that Rambam believes that the Yonah-in-the-fish episode should be understood literally. The Rambam understands various stories as non-literal due to theological problems posed by the literal understanding; Hashem’s, or even an angel’s corporeality is inconceivable to the Rambam, and therefore he understands various Pesukim as allegories or prophecies in accordance with this view. However, just as Rambam does not regard the Ten Makkot as allegorical, even though they severely deviate from the natural course of events, so too the Rambam does not interpret Yonah’s stay in the fish or the Kikayon incident as allegory, since there is no compelling theological reason to do so.
Moreover, the Mishnah’s phrase is paraphrased in both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Selichot. Ashkenazic Jews say, “Mi She’Anah LeYonah BiMe’ei HaDagah, Hu Ya’aneinu,” and Sephardic Jews say, “De’Anei LeYonah BiMe’ei HaDagah, Aneinan”, “He who answered Yonah in the belly of the fish, [Ashkenazim: He will] answer us.” Thus, the position that Yonah in the fish should be viewed as an allegory lies considerably outside the mainstream of Jewish thought.
Responding to Professor Simon’s Proofs
Professor Simon gave compelling insights arguing that the literary style indicates that Sefer Yonah is to be understood as allegorical. However, we may respond that the Rambam’s primary proof to his allegorical approach to Iyov (which Professer Simon utilized as a support) is from the fact that the location of Sefer Iyov, the land of Utz, appears to be fictional. Sefer Yonah, though, focuses on Nineveh, a very real place. It also mentions Yaffo as a port for international commerce, which it was then and remains so until this very day. Tarshish, Yonah’s aborted destination, is a real place as well, as explained by Da’at Mikra.
The portrayal of Nineveh as an evil and exceedingly large city is indeed realistic. Sefer Nachum serves as the sequel to Sefer Yonah, predicting the destruction of Nineveh following its reversion to its evil ways after Yonah’s visit. Finally, the absence of any mention of Yonah’s visit to Nineveh in Assyrian historical records hardly constitutes evidence that this event did not take place. Although abundant amounts of ancient Assyrian artifacts and documents are extant, Yonah’s absence might be explained in numerous ways.
It could be that Assyrian kings sought to squelch the story since Yonah’s message of morality was incompatible with their agenda. Alternatively, the Teshuvah was so short lived that Assyrian recorders of history did not find it worth mentioning. Finally, drawing conclusions from the absence of archaeological evidence is an endeavor fraught with danger which has yielded many theories that were subsequently debunked, especially in regard to the Tanach.
Rav Yaakov Emden is famous for noting in the introduction to his Siddur that the survival of the Jewish people is a miracle greater in magnitude than any miracle recorded in the Tanach. Yonah’s miraculous survival in the fish foreshadows our supernatural survival in the Exile. Just as Hashem has orchestrated our survival throughout the extreme difficulties of the past two thousand years, so too did Hashem arrange for Yonah to survive three days in the fish. The Jewish experience makes it much easier for us to believe the reality of Yonah’s miraculous survival. Furthermore, a major theme of the Yom Kippur is Hashem’s relationships and interactions with the world; the miracles performed for Yonah provide a strong reminder that Hashem interacts directly with the world, a fact we would do well to remember on Yom Kippur.
 Thank you to my son Binyamin, son-in-law Yisroel Perton, and dear friend Dr. Dino Feigelstock for helping us formulate the ideas in this essay.
 The Ramban (Breishit 18:1) rejects this argument of the Rambam in the strongest of terms.