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Jonah and the Music of Yom Kippur

Leviticus 10 tells us that Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu died for bringing "strange fire" before the Lord in the wilderness.  As a result of their deaths, according to Leviticus 16, God instructed Moses to ordain an annual Day of Atonement.  It probably never occurred to the Holy One that on Yom Kippur Jews would start bringing "strange music" before the Lord, but that is what has happened.  The haunting "traditional" melody of Kol Nidrei is the unofficial anthem of Yom Kippur eve; and somehow, perhaps because of the historically male voice of the cantor, the cello has become inextricably associated with the Day of Atonement.

Relevant Links
My Favorite Book in the Bible  Harold Bloom, New York Review of Books. Jonah is a sly masterpiece, a parody of prophetic solemnities, a magnificent piece of literature because it is so funny.
The Bible Scholar Who Didn't Know Hebrew  Anthony Grafton, Jewish Review of Books. Elias Bickerman may not have heard all the harmonies in Jonah, but he heard much else.
Kol Nidrei Quartet  John Zorn, Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Neither a setting nor an arrangement, John Zorn‘s clever and imaginative composition evokes Yom Kippur’s mood of awe and introspection. (Audio)  
Chromatic Vows  Arnold Schoenberg, Milken Archive of Jewish Music. Arnold Schoenberg‘s Kol Nidrei takes a drastic departure from tradition. (Audio) 

The strangest music of all, though, will be heard at the Yom Kippur afternoon service—the little symphony that we call the book of Jonah.  Its theme of atonement is obvious.  If the worshippers repent at once, God's forgiveness will be immediate and complete.  Yet, if we take Jonah not as a book written to be read in synagogues but as a piece of literature, we find a work that is very different from its cartoon image.  Elias Bickerman, the classicist who dipped into the Jewish history of the Greco-Roman era, included Jonah in his Four Strange Books of the Bible.  It was no mistake to do so.  If we are looking for a coherent story, the book hardly makes sense.  But if we see it as four movements of literary music, we find that each falls naturally into place.

First Movement

God calls on Jonah to "Arise, and go to Nineveh" to warn the inhabitants that "their evil has come up before Me."  Instead, Jonah "arises" only to go down to Jaffa and catch a boat for Tarshish, in a direction opposite to the one God commanded.  This theme of acting counter to God's instructions will play throughout chapter one in implicit counterpoint to the theme of God's request.  Jonah reaches Jaffa and goes down into the boat.  While the crew battles a mighty storm that God cast onto the sea, Jonah goes still further down into the ship's hold to take a nap.  (In the Hebrew, there is an untranslatable harmony.  When Jonah has gone down—yarad—as far as he can, he falls asleep—yeradem.) 

The pagan crewmen are hard at work casting cargo overboard to lighten the ship, but they find time to call to their own deities.  They are groping, in their ignorance, for a music that will harmonize with God's.  When they realize that Jonah's disobedience has caused their danger, they cast Jonah into the water.  The sea falls quiet.  The sailors pray and sacrifice to the Lord, in harmony with God.  The chapter ends in the "home" key.

Second Movement

Having been swallowed up by a great fish, Jonah continues the descent begun in chapter one.  He prays to God in a poem that sounds completely different from the prose of the book's other chapters.  The poem's intricate structure may be considered the literary analogue of a musical fugue.  Psychologically, it plunges us into a world outside everyday reality.  Time no longer flows steadily; it slows, then abruptly speeds up again. 

At the bottom of the ocean, with seaweed wrapped around his throat, Jonah finds himself inside the gates of hell.  The bars clang shut and the music pauses—an open cadence—on the word ha-aretz, here a euphemism for the underworld.  Yet, at that moment, Jonah achieves his greatest emotional closeness to God.  Now he can accept the task he once rejected.  When we break the surface of the water at the chapter's end, the adagio is over.  The ordinary rhythms of the world return with a sudden rush of light and air.

Third Movement

The great fish vomits Jonah onto the beach like the blat of a tuba, and we are launched into the Looney Tunes music of chapter three.  Jonah heads for Nineveh—"Fishtown" is the cuneiform sign for the city's name.  He enters the city and calls, "Forty more days and Nineveh is to be overthrown!"  But it will not take forty days; the instant Jonah speaks, the entire city is turned topsy-turvy.  The king of Nineveh proclaims a fast.  (Imagine Muammar Qaddafi issuing a sudden declaration, from his hideout, that Libya has to go glatt kosher.)  He arises from his throne and sits in the dust, for all class distinctions have been overturned.  Great and small afflict themselves in true Yom Kippur fashion, fasting and wearing sackcloth.  Even the cattle and the sheep are in sackcloth, fasting and praying to God.  The chapter ends with the biggest reversal of all:  The overthrow of Nineveh is canceled!  With that, the comic interlude of chapter three triumphantly concludes.

Fourth Movement

The salvation of Nineveh is a triumph for the penitent Ninevites and for God, but not for Jonah.  In contrast with the straightforward plot and themes of the first movement, the fourth chapter returns to the conflict between Jonah and God—a more complex conflict, marked by unanswered questions.  Why does Nineveh's survival make Jonah want to die?  Why does God confront him, with a question, about his depression?  Why does Jonah continue through the city to the east and remain there on the outskirts?  Why does Jonah need the plant that God summons up for him (just as He summoned the great fish), when Jonah has already built himself a shelter?  And why does the book stop abruptly with this question of God's: "Should I not care about Nineveh, a great city with more than 120,000 people in it who do not know their right hand from their left—not to mention all those animals?"  The comic music of chapter three has morphed into something in the same mode, but with serious content: Mozart turned to Mahler. 

This little symphony is of Haydnesque length, but the neoclassical sounds of chapters one and three are turned by the sophisticated music of chapters two and four into a completely contemporary 21st-century piece.  The decision to repent is easy, but what follows doesn't always end with the music of "happily ever after."  This, as much as the familiar strains of Kol Nidrei, is part of the music of Yom Kippur.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcastHe teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Gabi on October 6, 2011 at 8:45 am (Reply)
I assume you refer to the traditional Ashkenazic melody. The majority of the Jews here in Israel are Sephardic, and they are not familiar with this melody.
Madel on October 6, 2011 at 10:04 am (Reply)
Michael, you say, "As a result of their deaths, according to Leviticus 16, God instructed Moses to ordain an annual Day of Atonement."

That's not the reading at all. Because of what Nadav and Avihu improperly did, God restricted Aaron's access to the Holy of Holies to the once-a-year Yom Kippur service. But the Yom Kippur service was NOT instituted BECAUSE of what Nadav and Avihu did.

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