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Yonah’s Itinerary

Where did Yonah Hanavi Intend to Travel To?
Where is Tarshish on the Global Map?

The general outline of the story of Yonah and the fish which we read in sefer Yonah on Yom Kippur is well-known, but listening to the story makes us curious for more details about the man and what happened to him. 

Sefer Yonah opens with the nevuah that was given to Yonah:1Yonah, chapter 1.  “The word of Hashem came to Yonah son of Amittai. ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it, for their wickedness has come before Me.’ Yonah, however, started to flee to Tarshish, away from the service of Hashem.  He went down to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish.  He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of Hashem.”

Where and When Yonah Lived

Yonah is mentioned in several places in Tanach.  In sefer Melachim we read:2Melachim vol. II, 14:23.

In the fifteenth year of [the reign of] King Amatziah son of Yo’ash of Yehudah, King Yeravam son of Yo’ash of Yisrael became king in Shomron—for forty-one years.

He did what was displeasing to Hashem, he did not depart from all the sins that Yeravam son of Nevat had caused Israel to commit.  It was he who restored the territory of Israel from Levo-Chamas to the sea of the Aravah, in accordance with the promise that Hashem, the G-d of Israel, had made through His servant, the prophet Yonah son of Amittai from Gath-Chefer.

We learn that Yonah lived in a town called Gath-Chefer.  We’ll discover more about where Yonah lived soon, but first let’s figure out a more precise timeframe as to when Yonah lived.

We learn one important fact about when Yonah lived.  His life preceded that of King Yeravam II.3To distinguish him from Yeravam son of Nevat, Yeravam I.

Title: Black Obelisk Yehu in front of Shalmaneser III
Description: Shalmaneser III receiving the tribute of “Jehu of the people of the land of Omri”, referring to Jehu, king of northern Israel, as depicted on the Black Obelisk, circa 840 BCE.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Rabbi Yossi ben Tachlifa writes in his sefer, Seder Olam:4Seder Olam, Chapter 19.

Yehu reigned over Israel for 28 years… the pasuk says: “And Hashem said to Yehu…” Who told [the prophecy to] him? Yonah ben Amittai.  “In those days Hashem began to reduce Israel… east of the Jordan, all the land of Gilead.”

Yehu reduced the borders of Israel, and Yeravam II, who lived about 100 years after him, returned the borders of Israel, as we see above, from sefer Melachim.

In Seder Olam, there is another detail as to when Yonah lived.  It was Yonah who anointed Yehu as the new king of Israel, in Ramos Gilead.5Seder Olam, Chapter 18.  Thus, according to Seder Olam, Yonah lived in the times of Yehu, who lived about 100 years before Yeravam II.

Yonah’s Tribe, and a Torah Class in Tiveria

To find out more about Yonah’s tribal origins, we need to go back some 1,800 years, and enter the beis hamedrash in Tiveria, where Rabbi Yochanan gave his classes:6Yerushalmi, Sukkos, 22b. Based on translation by Rabbi Moshe Dovid Cohen,; accessed 2 September 2020.

Rabbi Levi and Yehuda bar Nachman would be given two Sela each Shabbos to speak to the people [to prevent everyone from leaving] before the arrival of Rabbi Yochanan.
R’ Levi went up and expounded: “Yonah ben Amittai was from the tribe of Asher, as the pasuk states,7Shoftim 1:31. ‘Asher did not expel the dwellers of Acre and Tzidon.’ Another pasuk states,8Melachim vol. I, 17:9. ‘Get up, go to Tzarfas in Tzidon’.”

Title: Carte des douze tribus d’Israel – Map of the twelve tribes of Israel
Authors: Jean Lattre (1743–1793) & Rigobert Bonne (1727–1794)
Date: 1762
Publisher: Lettre et Jean Thomas Herissant
Publisher Location: Paris
Credit: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

From the above pesukim, we learn that Tzarfas is in Tzidon, which is within the portion of the tribe of Asher.  Therefore, R’ Levi deduced that Yonah, living in Tzarfas, was from the tribe of Asher.

Afterward, R’ Yochanan arrived and expounded: “Yonah was from the tribe of Zevulun, as the pasuk states,9Yehoshua 19:10. ‘The third lottery came up for the children of Zevulun according to their families.’ Another pasuk states,10Ibid., 13. ‘From there it passed to the east, to Gath-Chefer, and to Itah Katzin.’ Another pasuk states,11Melachim vol. II, 14:25. ‘like the word of Hashem, G-d of Israel, who spoke through the hand of His servant Yonah ben Amittai the prophet, from Gath-Chefer.’”

As we see above, Yonah actually lived in Gath-Chefer.  From the above-mentioned pesukim, we see that Gath-Chefer is within the borders of the tribe of Zevulun.  Hence R’ Yochanan’s position, that Yonah was from the tribe of Zevulun.

On another Shabbos, it was Yehuda bar Nachman’s turn to speak.  R’ Levi told Yehuda bar Nachman, “You can take the two Sela, but allow me to address the people before R’ Yochanan arrives.”

R’ Levi went up and said: “R’ Yochanan taught well – Yonah’s mother was from Asher and his father was from Zevulun.  The pasuk states,12Bereishis 49:13. ‘[Zevulun will dwell by the seashore.  He will be at the ship’s port] and his borders will reach Tzidon.’”

This pasuk alludes to Yonah who first went to the seashore and later to the ship’s port after being thrown into the sea.  The end of the pasuk says “yarchaso”, his borders will reach Tzidon.  This refers to his mother who was from Tzidon, which is part of Asher’s land.

A further proof of Yonah’s origins:
The pasuk states:13Yonah 1:3. ‘He descended to Yafo.’ The pasuk should have said that ‘he descended to Akko (Acre)?’

Akko is the edge of the region of Asher.  Yonah was born in the territory of Asher, as his mother was from there, and later moved to the region of Zevulun, which is why he went to Yafo port.  If he would have been solely from the tribe of Asher, he would have gone to Acre port, which was closer.

Who Was Yonah ben Amittai?

What was R’ Levi’s source that Yonah was from Tzarfas?

We can learn more about Yonah’s origins from a midrash on Tehillim:14Shochar Tov, chapter 26.

…the son of the Widow of Tzarfas, this is Yonah ben Amittai, he was a tzadik gamur.  He was purified by being swallowed by the fish in the depths of the seas, and he did not die… He went in alive and respectfully to Gan Eden…

One may wonder, who is the Widow of Tzarfas?  The name of Yonah’s mother is recorded as Yoam bas Azor,15The Farhi Bible, by Elisha Crescas of Provence; see Ohel Dawid, London 1932, vol. 1. and we find her story in sefer Melachim:16Melachim vol. I, 17:8-24.

Title: Elijah Revives the Son of the Widow of Zarephath
Artist: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872)
Date: 1842
Collection: Getty Center, LA
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And the word of Hashem came to him [Eliyah]:”Go at once to Tzarfas of Sidon, and stay there; I have designated a widow there to feed you.”

So, he went at once to Tzarfas.  When he came to the entrance of the town, a widow was there gathering wood.  He called out to her, “Please bring me a little water in your pitcher, and let me drink.”

As she went to fetch it, he called out to her, “Please bring along a piece of bread for me.”

“As Hashem your G-d lives,” she replied, “I have nothing baked, nothing but a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.  I am just gathering a couple of sticks so that I can go home and prepare it for me and my son; we shall eat it and then we shall die.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said to her.  “Go and do as you have said, but first make me a small cake from what you have there, and bring it out to me; then make some for yourself and your son.  For thus said Hashem, the G-d of Israel: The jar of flour shall not give out and the jug of oil shall not fail until the day that Hashem sends rain upon the ground.”

She went and did as Eliyah had spoken, and she and he and her household had food for a long time.  The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the jug of oil fail, just as Hashem had spoken through Eliyah.

After a while, the son of the mistress of the house fell sick, and his illness grew worse, until he had no breath left in him.

She said to Eliyah, “What harm have I done you, O man of G-d, that you should come here to recall my sin and cause the death of my son?”

“Give me the boy,” he said to her, and taking him from her arms, he carried him to the upper chamber where he was staying, and laid him down on his own bed.  He cried out to Hashem and said, “O Hashem my G-d, will You bring calamity upon this widow whose guest I am, and let her son die?”  Then he stretched out over the child three times, and cried out to Hashem, saying, “O Hashem my G-d, let this child’s life return to his body!”

Hashem heard Eliyah’s plea; the child’s life returned to his body, and he revived.

Eliyah picked up the child and brought him down from the upper room into the main room, and gave him to his mother.  “See,” said Eliyah, “your son is alive.”

And the woman answered Eliyah, “Now I know that you are a man of G-d and that the word of Hashem is truly in your mouth.”

That child was none other than our protagonist, Yonah Hanavi!

Let’s summarize:

  • Rabbi Yochanan tells us that Yonah lived in Gath-Chefer, a town that is within Zevulun’s borders, as is the port-town of Yafo.  Therefore, we can conclude that his father, Amittai, was from the tribe of Zevulun.
  • Rabbi Levi tells us that in his youth Yonah dwelled in Tzarfas, a town that is within the borders of Asher, as is the port town of Acre.  This is where Yonah’s mother, the widow, lived.  After her husband Amittai died, she returned to her hometown. 
  • Seder Olam tells us that Yonah lived in the times of Yehu, the king of Israel.  Yehu lived about 100 years after the reign of Shlomo Hamelech.

Title: The Monuments of Nineveh – The Palaces of Nimroud Restored
Artist: Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894)
Description: Artist’s impression of Assyrian palaces, from a sketch by James Fergusson (1808–1886)
Collection: British Museum
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

So, let us return to Yonah, now living in Gath-Chefer, Hashem has a request from him: “Go at once to Nineveh!”

How did Yonah react?

“He went down to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish.  He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of Hashem.”

Where was Yonah trying to escape to?

Nineveh: On the Tigris

So, Yonah is in Gath Chefer, and he is instructed to go east to Nineveh.  Instead he goes south, to the port town Yafo, and takes the ship to Tarshish.

We know where Nineveh is from Chumash Bereshis:17Bereshis 10:8-12.

Cush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.
He was a mighty hunter by the grace of Hashem; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of Hashem.”
The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar.
From that land Ashur went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah; And Resen between Nineveh and Calach, that is the great city.

So, Nineveh is in Ashur, a place that is first mentioned in the beginning of sefer Bereshis:18Bereshis 2:10-14.

A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches….The name of the third river is Chidekel, the one that flows east of Ashur.  And the fourth river is the Peras.

Thus Ashur is on the banks of the Chidekel River.

Josephus Flavius, as a historian, adds some information that sheds light on these verses:19Jewish Antiquities, Loeb Edition, Book 1, 1:3.

Moses further states that G-d planted east-Paradise.  A park, abounding in all manner of plants, among them being the tree of life and another, of wisdom, by which might be distinguished what was good and what was evil.  And into this garden, he brought Adam and his wife and bade them tend the plants.  Now this garden is watered by a single river whose stream encircles all the earth and is parted into four branches.  Of these, Phison runs towards India and falls into the sea, being called by the Greeks, Ganges.  The Euphrates and the Tigris end in the Erythraean Sea.  The Euphrates is called Phoras signifying either “dispersion” or “flower,” and the Tigris is called Diglath, expressing at once “narrowness” and “rapidity.”

It is interesting that Chazal, refer to the Chidekel river in a very similar manner:20Bereshis Rabbah, 16:3. “and the name of the third river is Chidekel, since it is “chad”, which refers to its swiftness and rapidness.

The traveler R’ Pesachya from Ratisbon writes similarly in his travelogue:21Sivuv Rebbi Pesachya around 12th-early 13th centuries. “The river Chidekel is very light and swift, and turns over boats, one must build rafts…”

Indeed, The targumim refer to the Chidekel, as “Diglas”, as Josephus did.

We can note something very interesting.  We know that Ashur (Assyria), is on the (Diglas) Tigris River whilst Bavel (Babylonia) is on the Peras (Euphrates) river.

Chazal write the following passage:22Eruvin 22b.

Bavel, too, is surrounded with the Euphrates from that side, and with the Diglas from the other side.

Herodotus, the historian, writes a very similar description:23Histories, 1:193.

For the whole Babylonian territory like the Egyptian territory, is cut up into channels, and the largest of the channels is navigable for ships and runs in the direction of the sun rising in winter from the Euphrates to another river, namely the Tigris, along the bank of which lay the city of Nineveh.

Nineveh is thus located northeast of Eretz Yisrael, on the eastern bank of the river Chidekel/Diglas/Tigris.  On a modern map, it is located on the outskirts of Mosul, in modern-day northern Iraq.

Tarshish: In Turkey

To reach his destination, Nineveh, we would expect that Yonah had to go northeast.  Yonah turned southwest, to Yafo, the port-town at the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  He was going to…Tarshish.  Now, where is Tarshish?

In Bereshis we were introduced to Tarshish as well:24Bereshis 10:4. “The descendants of Yavan: Elishah and Tarshish, the Kittim and the Dodanim.”

Yavan became Greece.  Since Tarshish was a son of Yavan, his land would perhaps be located somewhere in the vicinity of Greece.

Josephus has a discussion about this:25Jewish Antiquities, Loeb Edition, Book 1, 1:127

Javan, son of Japhet, also had three sons.  Of these Halisas gave his name to his subjects the Halisaeans — the modern Aeolians — and Tharsos to the Tharsians.  The latter was the ancient name of Cilicia, as is proved by the fact that its principal and the capital city is called Tarsus, the ‘Th’ having been converted into ‘T’. 

Wikipedia presents the following about Cilicia:

Cilicia is a geo-cultural region in southern Turkey, extending inland from the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea.  With a population of over six million, comprising Mersin, Adana, Osmaniye, and Hatay provinces, Cilicia is one of the large population concentrations of the Near East.

Josephus, when writing about the story of Yonah, writes indeed:26Ibid., book 9, chapter 10.

I have thought it necessary to recount what I have found written in the Hebrew books concerning this prophet.  This man, then, having been commanded by G-d to go to the kingdom of Ninos and, when he arrived there, to preach in that city that it would lose its power, was afraid and did not set out, but fled from G-d to the city of Jope, where he found a boat and embarked in it to sail to Tarsus in Cilicia.

Cilicia is north of Eretz Yisrael, on the coast of Turkey.  Yonah didn’t necessarily need to take a boat to get there, he could have easily made his way on land.  Even if he took the boat, it could have been to go north, which is also the way to Nineveh, if he preferred to travel by sea.

Tarshish: In Tunisia

Perhaps Tarshish is not in Cilicia, but somewhere else.  So, let’s put Josephus’s opinion aside.

The Ibn Ezra brings two opinions as to where Tarshish was:27Ibn Ezra on Yonah 1:3.

The Gaon [Rabbi Saadia] said that Tarshish is Tarsus.
Rabbi Mevaser said it is the town of Tunis in Africa.

The Abarbanel seconds the opinion of R’ Mevaser:

And Yonah wanted to flee to Tarshish, which is the town, called today, Tunis between the Arabs.

On another place, he goes into more detail:28Melachim, vol. I, 10:22.

And Tarshish is the southern civilization, called Africa.  And Tarshish is the country once called Carthage, and today is called Tunis.  It is on the sea, which is in the center of the earth called Mediterranean Mere/Sea.

Although one would think that Tarshish being Tarsus, has stronger support, it isn’t so.  Actually, the targum for Tarshish, in sefer Melachim is “Africa”!

One thing is for sure, whilst to travel to Tarsus in Turkey, one could travel by land, this is not the case with Tunis, due to the desert.  The only way to reach Tunis would be by boat.

Where did Yonah turn? To Tarsus, in Turkey, or to Tunis, in Tunisia? There is yet a third option.

On the Coast of the Red Sea: The Shipyard in Etzion-Geber

Let’s turn to King Yehoshaphat:29Divrei HaYamaim, vol. II, 20:35-36.

Afterward, King Yehoshaphat of Judah entered into a partnership with King Achaziah of Israel, thereby acting wickedly.  He joined with him in constructing ships to go to Tarshish; the ships were constructed in Etzion-Geber.

Etzion-Geber, was a port with a large shipyard.  Etzion-Geber was located at the northern end of the Gulf of Aqaba, in modern day Jordan.  Its coast is along the Red Sea, (the ancient and preferred translation of Yam Suf).  Sholomo Hamelech also build his ships there:30Melachim, vol. I, 9:26.

King Solomon also built a fleet of ships at Ezion-Geber, which is near Eloth on the shore of Yam Suf in the land of Edom.

Now this debunks our previous two theories about the location of Tarshish.  The reason is since at least 2-3 millennia ago it was well-known that a person could not travel to these places from the Red Sea, neither to Tunis, nor Tarsus.  Let alone, that in that historical period, no one had knowledge of the great oceans.31Herodotus writes in his Histories (book IV): “Geryon lived outside the Pontus, in an island called by the Greeks Erytheia, near Gades, which is beyond the Pillars of Hercules upon the Ocean. Now some say that the Ocean begins in the east, and runs the whole way round the world; but they give no proof that this is really so.” “Pillars of Hercules” refers to the Strait of Gibraltar.

Even if the above understanding is not accurate, it would be completely illogical to build ships on the shores of the Red Sea, in order to use them in the Mediterranean Sea (in order to do so they would have had to sail around the entire continent of Africa).

Therefore, we can suggest that Tarshish is rather some location on the shores of the Red Sea.

However, Yonah boarded the boat in Yafo.  Since Yafo is situated on the Mediterranean Sea, it doesn’t make sense to say that Yonah’s destination was along the coast of the Red Sea.

Based on the evidence available which is contradictory, we can surmise that there were two cities by the name of Tarshish.  One was on the shores of the Red Sea, and the other was on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tarshish: In Bulgaria

Indeed, it seems, that Josephus thought so too.  Regarding King Yehoshaphat’s boats, he writes as follows:32Jewish Antiquities, Loeb Edition, Book IX, 16-19.

And so, from that time on Josaphat enjoyed splendid fame because of his righteousness and his piety toward the Deity.  And he was also friendly with Achab’s son, who ruled over the Israelites, and joined with him in building ships to sail to Pontus and the trading-stations of Thrace, but he suffered the loss of his property, for the vessels were destroyed because of their great size; and for this reason he was no longer keen about ships.  Such, then, was the state of affairs under Josaphat, the king of Jerusalem.

Josephus identifies here Tarshish as “Thrace”.

Thrace is located in Bulgaria, Southeast Europe!  That modern-day location is way off any route that we would think Yonah would have sailed to from Yafo.  That means, that either ancient Thrace was located elsewhere, or, it refers to a third and different location for Tarshish.

We can end this discussion by concluding that Yonah boarded the boat in Yafo, destined either to Tarsus in Cilicia, or Tunis in Tunisia.  However, King Yehoshaphat’s destination remains a mystery to us.

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