The placement of a comma makes all the difference in the world. In a classic example, there is a very big difference between “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma.” Similarly, the question as to the placement of a comma in the phrase “Mi yodeia yashuv v’nicham haElokim” (Yonah 3:9) stated by the king of Nineveh makes a great difference and even might serve as a source for the differing Sephardic and Ashkenazic perspectives on the Yamim Noraim.
Radak’s First Explanation
Radak’s first explanation of this phrase is “Who knows, perhaps if we repent God will relent.” The comma according to this approach is placed after the word yodeia (know).
The Da’at Mikra asserts that this explanation represents peshuto shel mikra (the straightforward meaning of the text). The Da’at Mikra notes that this lack of certainty represents the humble attitude that a penitent should adopt.
Da’at Mikra cites the example of David HaMelech when praying for the child he fathered in an illicit relationship with Batsheva “Perhaps Hashem will forgive me” (Shmuel II 12:22). We may add Moshe Rabbeinu proclaiming in the wake of the heit ha’eigel (sin of the golden calf) “Veata e’ele el Hashem, ulai achapera be’ad chatat’chem, And now I will ascend to Hashem, perhaps I will succeed in attaining forgiveness for your sin” (Shemot 32:30). Da’at Mikra also notes that this is the refrain of one the Selichot recited by Ashkenazic Jews, “Ulai yachus am ani v’evyon, ulai yeracheim, Maybe He will have compassion for the poor nation, perhaps He will have mercy.”
The Radak’s approach to teshuva echoes the Yerushalmi’s brilliant articulation of the gift of Teshuvah. The Yerushalmi states,1
Chochma (the attribute of wisdom), prophecy, the Torah and God were each asked what the punishment of a sinner should be. Chochma replied: “A sinner should be driven from the world.” Prophecy replied: “A sinner should be punished by death.” The Torah replied: “A sinner should bring the Asham sacrificial offering and his will be forgiven.” Hashem replied: “Let the sinner repent and his sin will be forgiven.”
In other words, a repentant sinner is not entitled to forgiveness. Rather it is a gift from Hashem. The beneficiary of a gift approaches his benefactor with humility and not with an attitude of entitlement.
Radak’s attitude is supported by the king of Nineveh’s humble acts of repentance described in (Yonah 3:6). The king is depicted as removing his royal robes and instead donning sackcloth and sitting in ashes.
Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel’s Explanation
Every translation is by definition a commentary on the Torah. Many verses can be interpreted in multiple ways. Thus, the choice of translation depends on how one interprets the pasuk. Accordingly, the great translations of the Tanach, such as Targum Onkelos to the Chumash and Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel to Nach, should not be viewed as mere translations but as commentaries.
Our pasuk is one such example of how Yonatan ben Uzziel should be seen as a commentator. Targum Yonatan translates our pasuk as saying, “One who knows he has sinned should repent, then Hashem will relent.” In other words, the comma should be placed after the word yashuv (literally return, here repent).
Da’at Mikra observes that the ta’amei mikra (cantillation symbols) support this reading of the pasuk. The zakeif cantillation signifies a comma and it is placed at the word yashuv. We also should note that the ta’amei mikra are not merely a means of placing the pesukim to song, but they are a tool for interpreting pesukim. Rashi adopts this approach as well, as does the Mahari Kra.
This interpretation represents a very different approach to the attitude of a baal teshuva (literally master of repentance/returning). It is a confident outlook, with the idea that if one repents, he can expect that Hashem will forgive.
The Da’at Mikra notes that the Targum Yonatan and the composer of the ta’amei mikra do not represent the peshuta shel mikra. Da’at Mikra argues that this interpretation is intended to encourage the listeners of this Haftarah on Yom Kippur during Mincha. The message is a reassuring one; that the listeners’ fasting and teshuva of Yom Kippur will not be for naught. It is also, Da’at Mikra, notes, important to sound the clarion call that if we sinned we should repent.
The Difference Between Radak and Targum Yonatan
There is an enormous difference (nafka minah) between Radak’s and Targum Yonatan’s respective approaches. Radak presents the baal teshuva as adopting a humble stance, while the Targum Yonatan presents the baal teshuva as adopting a confident posture.
Interestingly, the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4) presents the baal teshuva as one who “Cries constantly before Hashem,” obviously adopting an approach similar to the Radak. This is hardly surprising as the Radak tends to adopt a philosophical orientation similar to that of the Rambam.
Moreover, it seems that the difference between the Radak and Targum Yonatan reflects itself in the differing styles of tefillah on Yom Kippur and Selihot between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. The difference is especially pronounced in regards to the dramatically different styles of reciting Selihot. As is well known, the Sephardic tunes on these days are much more upbeat and piyyutim (lyrical prayers) radiate confidence that we will be forgiven. The chorus of one very famous Sephardic pizmon (song), “Adon HaSelichot” (Master of Forgiveness), brims with confidence “Chatanu lefanecha racheim aleinu, We have sinned before you, have mercy on us.” In a dramatic contrast, Ashkenazic tefillah on Yom Kippur, while also very beautiful, is quite solemn.
It is possible that the Sephardic tradition follows the approach of Targum Yonatan, the author of the teamim, and Rashi, whereas Ashkenazic Jews follow the stance advanced by the Radak and Rambam. If this analysis is correct, it is most interesting that Sephardic Jews adopt the attitude put forth by Rashi, an Ashkenazic authority, whereas Ashkenazic Jews follow the outlook of the Radak and Rambam who are Sephardic sages.
What a difference a comma makes! Fundamental issues regarding teshuva and our relationship with Hashem emerge from Yonah 3:9 depending on where one places a comma. Indeed, the differing approaches between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions to the tefilla of the Yamim Noraim might even depend on where one places the comma of this critical pasuk.
Postscript - The Conclusion to the Haftarah Selections for Shabbat Shuvah
This difference in approach between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews in regards to the Yamim Noraim might also explain their differing ending to the Haftarah of Shabbat Shuvah. On Shabbat Shuva, both groups begin the Haftarah with a selection from Hoshei’a chapter 14 calling on the Jewish people to repent—“Shuva yisrael ad Hashem elokecha.”
The communities diverge, however, as to which selection supplements the Hoshei’a reading. Ashkenazim read a selection from the Navi Yoel (chapter two) calling upon the Jews to assemble and engage in repentance that includes fasting and crying. Sephardic Jews, though, read a portion from the Navi Micha (chapter 7) which emphasizes the kindness of Hashem in his merciful acts of forgiveness. Unlike Ashkenazim, who choose a prophetic reading which stresses solemnity and somberness, Sepharadim focus on Hashem’s kind characteristics and forgiving nature.
Once again, Ashkenazic practice places the stress on Hashem as our king and the Sephardic approach places the accent as Hashem as our father.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.