The Seafaring Converts Who Came to Zion



In the previous letter, we discussed a prayer on behalf of the gerei tzedek which appears in the weekday Shemoneh Esrei. According to an ancient midrashic work known as Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, the sages who composed this prayer were inspired by the story of the sailors in the Book of Jonah, as our tradition teaches that these sailors went up to Jerusalem and became gerei tzedek. In this letter, we will discuss this fascinating story and some of the various commentaries, including the commentary which appears in Chapter Ten of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer:


Dear Friends,


Within our Sacred Scriptures, we find the Book of Jonah. It tells a haunting and moving story about Jonah, the Prophet, and his encounter with a group of sailors who later become “gerei tzedek” – converts who are committed to the Torah’s path of tzedek. Jonah received a Divine call to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, which was known for its corruption and theft. Assyria was also an enemy of Israel; nevertheless, Jonah was commanded by Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-giving One, to go the capital city of the enemy, as it is written:


“And the word of Hashem came to Jonah son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise! Go to Nineveh, the great city, and call out against her, for their wickedness has ascended before Me.’ ” (Jonah 1:1,2)


As the Book of Jonah later reveals, the purpose of Jonah’s journey was to inspire them to abandon their corrupt ways and return to Hashem; moreover, the Book of Jonah records that they did repent, and Hashem therefore spared them (Jonah 3:10).


What was Jonah’s initial reaction to the Divine call to go to Nineveh? Jonah tried to flee from his mission, as it is written:


“But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from before Hashem’s Presence. He went down to Jaffa and found a ship bound for Tarshish; he paid its fare and boarded it to travel with them to Tarshish from before Hashem’s Presence.” (1:3)


It seems strange that he would attempt to flee from his mission; moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud (Succah 5:1) states that the Divine call came to him in Jerusalem during the Festival of Succos, when Israel brings seventy offerings of atonement on behalf of the seventy primary nations of the world. Through these seventy offerings of atonement, the nations would merit life and sustenance during the coming year. Since this is a season when Israel seeks the atonement of all the nations, why did Jonah refuse to obey a Divine mandate to call upon one of these nations to atone for its corrupt ways?


According to one answer given by our sages and cited by the commentator, Radak, in his commentary on Jonah 1:1, the prophet was concerned that the people of Nineveh might actually heed his call; in other words, he was afraid that his mission would succeed! Jonah did not want his mission to succeed, for if the people of Nineveh did repent, it would point an accusing finger at those in Israel who refused to heed the many warnings of the prophets to correct their ethical and spiritual shortcomings. Jonah therefore chose to protect the honor of Israel by fleeing from his mission. As the next passage reveals, Hashem did not allow the prophet to escape his mission:


“Then Hashem cast a mighty wind toward the sea; there was a great tempest in the sea, and the ship threatened to split. The sailors became frightened and they cried out, each to his god; they cast the wares that were on the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah descended to the ship’s holds, and he lay down and fell fast asleep.” (1:4,5)


Rashi, in his commentary on the words, “they cried out, each to his god,” cites the following teaching from Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer: There were representatives of each of the seventy nations on Jonah’s ship. Jonah did not wish to accept a Divine mission which served as a reminder of Hashem’s concern for the seventy nations; yet, on the ship that was to help him escape, Jonah is confronted with representatives of the seventy nations! The Book of Jonah then describes the reaction of the captain and all the sailors on the ship:


“The ship’s captain approached him and said to him, ‘How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your God! Perhaps God will think of us and we will not perish.’ Then they said one to another, ‘Come let us cast lots that we may determine on whose account this misfortune is upon us.’

So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. They said to him, ‘Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your trade? And from where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?’ 

He said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I revere Hashem, the God of the Heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land.’

The men were frightened with great fear and they said to him, ‘What is this that you have done?’ – For the men knew that it was from before Hashem that he was fleeing, for he had told them. They said to him, ‘What must we do to you so that the sea will subside from upon us? For the sea grows stormier!’

He said to them, ‘Pick me up and heave me into the sea and the sea will calm down from upon you; for I know that it is because of me that this great tempest is upon you.’ ” (1:6-12)


As the next passage indicates, the sailors were initially reluctant to fulfill his request:


“The men rowed hard to return to the shore, but they could not, because the sea was growing stormier upon them. They called out to Hashem, and said, ‘Please Hashem, let us not perish now on account of this man’s soul and do not reckon it against us as innocent blood, for You, Hashem, as You wished, so have you done.’ So they lifted Jonah and heaved him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging.” (1:13-15)


The Boo k of Jonah adds: “Then the men felt a great awe of Hashem; they offered a sacrifice to Hashem and took vows.” (1:16)


The commentators interpret the above verse to mean that the sailors took upon themselves to bring offerings to Hashem in Jerusalem. What were the vows that they took? Rashi explains that they vowed to become converts. Rashi’s explanation is based on the commentary of Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer. According to this midrashic work, the sailors on the ship witnessed the miracles which happened to the prophet, as described in the Book of Jonah. A very large fish swallowed Jonah, and he remained alive in the fish’s innards for three days and three nights. From within the fish, he prayed to Hashem for deliverance and he was answered, as it states: “Then Hashem addressed the fish, and it spewed out Jonah onto dry land” (2:11). Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer teaches that after the sailors witnessed these miraculous events, they threw their idols into the sea, and they returned to the port of Jaffa. They then went up to Jerusalem, where they became gerei tzedek; moreover, they vowed to also bring their families to the service of the One God. According to Pirkei D’ Rabbi Eliezer, the sages who composed the prayer for gerei tzedek in the Shemoneh Esrei were inspired by the story of the sailors from the seventy nations who became gerei tzedek and others like them..


Rabbi David Luria was a leading 19th century sage who wrote a noted commentary on Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, and he cites the tradition that Jonah was from the Tribe of Zevulun (Jerusalem Talmud, Succah 5:1). According to Rabbi David Luria, the story of Jonah and the sailors from the seventy nations who came up to Jerusalem is alluded to in the following blessing given by Moshe Rebbeinu to the seafaring Tribe of Zevulun:


“They shall call peoples to the mountain; there they shall sacrifice offerings of tzedek” (Deuteronomy 33:19).


The commentator, Rashi, in his second explanation of the above blessing, explains that Zevulun – a tribe engaged in maritime commerce – would attract merchants from other peoples to visit the Land of Israel. These merchants will then say to each other: “Since we have already taken the trouble to come this far, let us continue to Jerusalem and see what divinity is worshiped by this nation and what are the deeds of this nation.” When they come to Jerusalem, they will notice how all the diverse tribes of Israel are united through their belief in one God and through their devotion to one path; as a result, they will be inspired to convert, and they will bring offerings of tzedek on the Mountain of Hashem in Jerusalem. (Based on the midrashic commentary, Sifri)


According to the above explanation of Rashi, the seafaring Tribe of Zevulun is to attract merchants from the peoples of the earth to the Land of Israel. In this way, they will go up to Jerusalem, where they will be inspired by the spiritual example of Israel and convert. The Prophet Jonah was from the Tribe of Zevulun, and in his own way, he inspired a group of sailors from the peoples to come to Jerusalem and convert. Jonah therefore helped to fulfill the universal role of his tribe: “They shall call peoples to the mountain!”



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen 


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