In 1985, the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality erected a statue by Ilana Gur “The Smiling Whale” near the port of the Old City of Yafo (Jaffa). Since then, the whale statue has become an integral part of the city’s landscape and everyone who’s seen it has learned about the ancient biblical drama that links the fate of the Assyrian nation to its Jewish counterpart.
The story: The prophet Jonah was sent by God’s command to save Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim upon it” (Jonah 1: 2). He thus embarked on this epic journey from the port of Jaffa to the city, the name of which was changed by its Islamic conquerors to Mosul (الموصل), in today's Iraq.
Although Jonah tried to evade the mission, God (as God only can) found ways to return him to the path of prophecy. The rescue of Nineveh was more important than the well-being of the tormented Jewish prophet.
Thousands of years after this unique episode, at the end of November 2019, a group of Assyrian leaders from around the world, and several other Israelis, stood by the whale statue in Jaffa. They recounted the story of the prophet Jonah and the connection between the two nations, and the message was clear. Just as the Jewish nation mobilized to save the Assyrian nation in ancient times, so must the modern state of Israel do today.
The Assyrian nation is scattered among the peoples of the world after a long series of extremely brutal persecutions, beginning with the genocide perpetrated by the Turks and Kurds in 1895-1925, continuing with the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and ending with the ISIS terrorist group.
As is well known, the most sacred day for Jews in the Hebrew calendar is Yom Kippur. This is a day of fasting that lasts about twenty-five hours and, for the most part, we pray to save ourselves from the judgment that God brings upon all creatures of the world. To illustrate the possibility of salvation, the ancient Jewish sages prescribed the reading of the Book of Jonah in the middle of Yom Kippur. Every year, on the most holy day, we are reminded of the mission of the Jewish prophet to save the Assyrian people. This phenomenon has no equal in the entire Jewish religion.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) draws our attention to the fact that “Nineveh was a great city for God” (Jonah 3: 3). He explains that the city received this special status because its people “were God-fearing since early times, and explains that it was a large and precious city in the eyes of God for him to destroy it... And if they were not the men of God from the beginning, he would not have sent the Prophet to them, and here we have seen that they returned in a complete repentance, which is unparalleled” (Rashi, Jonah 1: 2).
Everyone who knows the Bible knows that there is no other important city for God other than Jerusalem. But here, Nineveh occupies an important place with Him next to Jerusalem. The people of Nineveh are the people of God and, therefore, the city of Nineveh is very important to God. Thus, if Nineveh is important to the God of Israel, it should also be important to the people of Israel.
Rabbi David Kimkhi (Radak) provides us with another argument: “Why does the God of Israel care about the other peoples; and, God be blessed, wants the world to be in order?” (Radak, Jonah 1: 2). The God of Israel wants the inhabitants of the whole world to live in peace and security and, so, he bothered the prophet Jonah to go to great lengths and save another nation. As mentioned, Jonah did not want to go on this mission. The Book of Jonah does not explain the reason for his refusal to accept the mission. The sages explained this by saying that Jonah knew in advance that the kingdom of Assyria was to be used as a tool by God against Israel, “The angry whip of the Lord to bring down Israel who rebelled against God... and, when Jonah knew that from this mission evil would grow for Israel, therefore, he thought he would not go on this mission” (Malbim, Jonah 1: 2. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 56b).
On that occasion, Rabbi Meir Weiser (Malbim) says a most wonderful thing: “God wanted to show that Assyria has a greater right than Israel. That the Assyrians heard the words of the prophet and repented, and Israel hardened their necks and did not hear” (Malbim, ibid. See also Shemot Rabbah, 45a).
If so, the Assyrians in this case are the model to be emulated by Israel. If they achieved such epentance, we too would do the same. There is no other example in the entire Bible where another people serve as a worthy model for Israel’s behavior. Moreover, the Torah warns us on many occasions “Shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes” (Leviticus 18: 3), and elsewhere it states “Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23: 9).
But this rule probably also has an exception. The exception is the people of Nineveh and the Assyrians. Perhaps this is what the Torah meant by Balaam saying “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him” (In Hebrew, “to see” is also Ashur וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ). We are all commanded to look straight at Assyria.
The exalted place of Nineveh in the eyes of God and in the eyes of Israel is also reflected in the tradition of Kabbalah. For example, in the “Tzemakh Tzedek,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Chabad leader) writes: “You should know, that Jonah is the secret of malkhut (kingship), and Nineveh is the secret of bina (supreme wisdom) and, therefore, Nineveh is called the ‘great city’ and, therefore, their sin was dependent on repentance, at fifty gates of wisdom. Thus, Jonah is Nineveh, for the repentance is in bina” (Book of Likutim, Jonah 1).
Anyone familiar with the tree of life of Kabbalah (ilan ha-sefiroth) knows that the bina, which represents Nineveh, is one of the top three sefiroth (emanations). One of the greatest leaders of Hasidic Judaism hence gives the “great city,” the capital of the kingdom of Assyria, such a high status in the deific system.
The end of the story is known: “So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD… And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he proclaimed, and said: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them… And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, which He said He would do unto them; and He did it not” (Jonah 3:3-10).
The story of the prophet Jonah also took root in the Assyrian tradition. With great resemblance to the Jews, the Assyrians also celebrate Bā‘ūṯā d-Nīnwāyē every year in fasting and prayers that last three days. This is another example from which one can learn about the immense closeness between the two cultures.
But above all, the story of the prophet Jonah and the rescue of Nineveh came to teach about the model of mutual guarantee between the two peoples, which we are commanded to keep even today. The Committee for the Revival of Aramit-Ashurit Language in Israel sees itself as the modern Israeli ambassador to the Assyrian nation.
Khayya Ashur, Khayya Israel!
Many thanks to Dr. Nicholas Al-Jeloo for editing this article!(YM)
Dr. Yaacov Maoz is the chairperson of the Committee for the Revival of the Aramit-Ashurit (Assyrian-Aramaic) Language in Israel and an activist for the promotion of Assyrian-Israeli relations. He is a lecturer in Jewish philosophy, author, poet, publicist and commentator on Jewish society on IDF Radio (Gali Tzahal).