How Can I Believe That Jonah Was Swallowed By A Fish?

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by R. Gil Student

My latest article on Jew in the city

The book of Jonah tells the famous story of a big fish (not whale) swallowing Jonah for three
days until the prophet emerged unscathed. To someone like me with more of skeptical point-of-view, this episode is hard to swallow.

Jonah had fled from the land of Israel after God set for him an unpleasant task, encouraging the
Jews’ enemy to repent. But you can’t hide from God. As Jonah’s boat was sailing, a storm
threatened to drown all the sailors who opted to save themselves by throwing Jonah
overboard. Jonah was swallowed by a fish and remained alive inside it for three days. Jonah
prayed to God, agreeing to fulfill his appointed task. The fish vomited Jonah onto dry land,
enabling the prophet to continue on his path.

I’ve never been swallowed by an animal, but I’m pretty sure no human can survive the ordeal.
Jonah should have been crushed, chewed, suffocated and starved, even if the fish somehow
had food pipes large enough to allow an intact human body to flow through. This story seems
quite unrealistic. The obvious response is that this is a miracle, but that seems a bit too easy.

Any implausible story, including magic tricks and mind reading cons, can be called a miracle.
Does Judaism expect us to be gullible?

Rambam (Maimonides) reinterprets many miraculous stories of the Bible. For example, he
believes that any time a person interacts with an angel, whether speaking, arguing or wrestling,
the story represents a vision, not a physical interaction (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42). In a letter on the
concept of a general resurrection, Rambam writes that he considers something a miracle only
when it is explicitly identified as such and cannot be reinterpreted (Letters, ed. Kafach, p. 88).
Rambam believes that we should not immediately take every miracle story at face value.
Rather, we have to dig deeper and understand what really happened.

Continued here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. A Strange Passage About Miracles in the Moreh Nevuchim (2:29)‎
    ‎ ‎
    In Moreh Nevuchim, 2:29, the Rambam seems to disparage a talmudical position about miracles ‎that he had endorsed in his prior works (Commentary on Avos 5:6 and /Shmoneh Perakim/ ‎chapter 8). This, despite the fact that in the Moreh, he refers the reader to these former works to ‎understand his position about miracles. And to further confuse matters, in the Moreh itself, ‎within just a few sentences, he goes on to laud the proponent of that very position for ‎maintaining it! ‎
    ‎ ‎
    The position is that already during the Creation week, G-d instilled, in objects and forces of ‎nature, the potential for the aberrant behaviors that He would unleash when appropriate. (I.e. the ‎aberrant behaviors were not changes G-d first decided upon, created and imposed upon things at ‎the time the miracles were witnessed.)‎
    ‎ ‎
    The Moreh Nevuchim introduces the concept with the words: ”Our Sages said things /zarrim ‎m’od/ as regards miracles.” ”/zarrim m’od/” is Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation. Narboni and ‎Schwartz use the similar ”/muzarrim,/ and likewise, Friedlander and Pines, in their English ‎translations, translate, ”very strange.” KPCH translates, ”/temuhim/” (astonishing). They all seem ‎to indicate that the Rambam shunned the idea.‎
    ‎ ‎
    Yet, as I noted, just a few sentences later, the Rambam lauds the Tanna who expressed the ‎thought:‎
    ‎ ‎
    ‎[T]his text…demonstrates the [high] level of the speaker, and its being very difficult in his ‎eyes that Nature could change after Creation, or that G-d’s Will would change after it had ‎been established. He therefore reasons, for example, that G-d instilled, in the nature of ‎Water, the [property of] sticking together and always flowing in a downward direction, ‎except for that time in which the Egyptians would drown in them; those specific waters ‎would split.‎

    I have already enlightened you as to the main idea of the [talmudic] statement [KPCH in ‎a footnote sees this as a reference to the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah and ‎‎/Shemoneh Perakim/], and that it is all meant to flee from [the idea that, after Creation, ‎G-d would bring about] the new creation of anything.‎
    It says there: R. Yonathan said, G-d placed stipulations on the sea, that it should divide ‎before the Israelites. Thus it says, ”And the sea returned, when the morning appeared, ‎‎/l’ay-sa-no/ [to its strength, or to its stipulated nature]”(Sh’mos 14:27). R. Yiremiyah ben ‎Elazar said: Not only with the sea did the Holy One, blessed be He, place stipulations, ‎but with all that has been created in the six days of Creation. ”My hands stretched out the ‎heavens, and all their hosts I commanded” (/Yishayahu/ 45:12): I commanded the sea that ‎it will divide, the fire that it should not harm Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the ‎lions that they should not harm Daniel, and the fish that it should spit out Jonah.”‎

    The same is to be applied to all the other miracles.‎
    ‎ ‎
    The surprising solution to this problem is really quite simple. I noticed that in Moreh 1:70 (p. 106 ‎in the classic version, line 2), Pines translates a certain phrase as “strange but true.” But both Ibn ‎Tibbon and Schwartz translate it, ”/ha-inyanim ha-mufla-os ha-n’chonos/, (”matters wondrous but ‎true/correct”).‎

    Hmmm. One Arabic scholar translates a word as ”strange,” while others translate it as ‎‎”wondrous.” I began to sense how the same word could be used both ways, and I suspected it ‎might also be the same word as in our passage in 2:29.‎
    ‎ ‎
    Without mentioning my problem about the Rambam’s self-contradiction (to keep the issue ‎unbiased), I asked R. Yakov Wincelberg, translator of Avraham ben HaRambam’s /Sefer ‎HaMaspik/ from Arabic to English, what the actual Arabic word there is, and if it’s the same ‎word in our passage in 2:29. ‎
    ‎ ‎
    Here is his reply:‎
    ‎ ‎
    In both cases, the word /griva/ is used. It doesn’t mean specifically “weird,” but ‎something that stands out. It could be: extraordinary, wondrous, amazing, rare, ‎peculiar, uncommon, obscure, etc. It even is used for emigrating from one’s country, ‎as one is separating from the people.‎
    ‎ ‎
    In other words, the word means ”outstanding.” So, true, one tends to understand the translation ‎‎”/zar/” or ”strange” to be meant in the sense of ”weird,” or ”foreign,” indicating that in the Moreh ‎the Rambam considered the ”front-loaded” miracle an idea to be shunned–contra the Gemora, ‎his /Avos/ commentary, and his /Shemoneh Perakim./ But the simpler truth is that the Rambam ‎consistently endorsed this view, and considered it to be an outstanding one.‎
    ‎ ‎
    One need only realize that Ibn Tibbon titles his dictionary of unfamiliar philosophical terms, ‎appended to his Moreh Nevuchim translation, ”/Payrush Me’Hamillot Zarot/,” The word Zar ‎indicates something unfamiliar, but not necessarily ”strange” in the sense of ”weird.” And it can ‎also mean something that is wondrous and true.‎
    ‎ ‎
    Zvi Lampel

  2. Of the Rishonim, the Ralbag is the only one who really has the same problem with miracles that science poses.

    Back in the days of Natural Philosophy, it was a central part of Aristotilian Physics that intellects impart impetus to objects, which causes them to move until the impetus runs out. This is why Aristo’s metaphysics centers on disembodied intellects, or as rishonim (eg the Rambam) calls them “sikhlim nivdalim”. This then explains how ratzon turns into action, and thus fits the role of mal’akhim closely enough for Rambam to call them one-and-the-same.

    The Ralbag understands nissim to be effects directly caused by the Active Intellect. But then, they might happen without any prior physical event, and thus be totally unexpected, they may even be unique, but they cannot defy the laws of nature. As the Active Intellect is below that in the hierarchy of things.

    But to most other rishonim, the problem to deal with with miracles is why they don’t imply a flaw in creation. After all, why would the Perfect Borei create a world that doesn’t work without His stepping in along the way to tweak things? It should run smoothly. And why doesn’t the miracle represent a change of Mind from Hashem’s original plan at the time of creation.

    A common proposal is to make the initial laws of nature as set at the time of creation more complex, and include the nissim within them. This eliminates both problems, as it moves the miracle into the same decision and the same creation as nature.

    In other words, the position that RZL attributes to the Rambam WRT where miracles come from is also that of the Ramban. Where they differ is that to the Rambam, wisdom comes in part from studying natures, and miracles thus interfere with our mission in life. Whereas to the Ramban, miracles exist as points by which we can see that everything is from Hashem, that nature has a bit of the miraculous about it. (Intentionally written vaguely; depending upon where you look in the Ramban, you could reach different conculsions. See R/Dr David Berger’s )

    But because of this difference in perspective, the Rambam would say that miracles are special cases of nature, wheres the Ramban would say sometihing along the lines of nature being the set of boring cases of miracle.

    In any case, their problem was making theological room for both, not suspending their belief in the universality of physics.

  3. In his earliest work, Rambam writes very clearly that all miracles were programmed into ‎nature during Creation. …‎
    Later in life, Rambam seems to have changed his mind. … Rambam writes that God actively ‎changes nature by rewarding the fulfillment of commandments and punishing their violation ‎‎(Moreh Nevukhim 3:32). This implies an Interventionist view, in which God temporarily ‎modifies the laws of nature to allow for exceptions.

    But in that very same chapter (Chapter 8 of Shemoneh Perakim, Introduction to ‎Commentary on Ahvos) too,, Rambam writes that God actively changes nature in ‎consequence of human behavior (something that should be obvious from any reading of ‎Chumash and Nach). He describes the plagues (to which in the commentary proper (5:3) he ‎refers to as ”miracles without doubt” [‎ואמנם העשרה ניסים אשר נעשו לאבותינו במצרים – הרי הם ‏הינצלם מעשר ‏המכות, והיות כל מכה ומכה מיוחדת במצרים, לא בישראל, ואלו ניסין בלא ‏ספק‎]) and God’s ‎interfering with Pharaoh’s free-will, as interventions based upon Pharaoh’s and Egypt’s evil ‎behavior.‎

    כי פרעה ועבדיו המרו ברצונם בלי הכרח ולא אונס, והרעו לגרים אשר היו בארצם ועשו להם עוול מוחלט, כמו ‏שאמר בפירוש : ייויאמר אל עמו הנה עם בני ישראל וגו’ הבה נתחכמה לו” (שם א ט-י) … והיה עונש ה’ להם על ‏כך. *‏

    So again, from his earliest to his latest works, Rambam consistently held that during the ‎creation week God implanted into the nature of His creations dormant aberrational behaviors, which God intervenes to trigger when He sees fit, ‎such as in consequence of human behavior.‎

    ‎* Likewise, in the same work, in his introduction to his commentary on Perek Chelek, we see ‎Rambam describing God’s intervening in nature based upon man’s behavior:‎

    אמנם הַיִּעוּדִים הטובים והנקמות הרעות הכתובות בתורה עניינם הוא מה שאספר לך, והוא זה: כי הוא אומר לך ‏אם תעשה הַמִּצְוֹת האלה אֲסַיֵּעַ לך על עֲשִׂיָּתָן והשלמוּת בהן, ואסיר מעליך המעיקים כולם. לפי שהאדם אי אפשר ‏לו לעשות הַמִּצְוֹת לא כשהוא חולה ורעב או צמא, ולא בשעת מלחמה ומצור. ולכן יָעַד שיסורו כל אלה העניָנים, ‏ושיהיו בריאים ושקטים עד שֶׁתִּשְׁלַם להם הידיעה ו…שיהיו נעזרים על עֲשִׂיַּת התורה באלה הדברים כולם. וכמו כן ‏אם עברו על התורה, יהיה עונשם שֶׁיֶּאֶרְעוּ להם אותן הרעות כולן, עד שלא יוכלו לעשות מִצְוָה….‏

    Zvi Lampel

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