Tarshish. Where is it? Chapter 1, Pasuk 3, of Sefer Yonah names Tarshish as the place Yonah sought to flee. Clearly there must be some significance to this intended destination. In order to determine the significance of Tarshish we must first endeavor to discover where Tarshish is located. The fact that our pasuk mentions Tarshish no less than three times adds to the urgency to discover an explanation.
Approach #1: Rashi
Rashi (on Pasuk 3) writes that Tarshish is a sea. Targum Yonatan ben Uzziel follows this approach as well. According to this explanation, Yonah does not care about the ship’s destination. Instead he is simply desperate to flee the Land of Israel. Rashi cites a midrash that presents a well-known mashal (parable): A slave flees his master who is a kohen and he runs to a cemetery, a tamei (impure) place where his master is forbidden to enter. The master says I cannot retrieve you but I can send others to get you. Chutz la’aretz (outside Israel) is the tamei place from the story, and Yonah, the slave, believes he can escape Hashem, the kohen. However, as in the mashal, Hashem has other recourse: The storm that threaten to sink Yonah’s boat is the agent sent to recover the slave.
Da’at Mikra (three options)
The Da’at Mikra notes that the word Tarshish refers to the sea, and thus a number of cities that lie near the sea are called Tarshish. It also notes that it is not clear which Tarshish is the one referred to in Sefer Yonah. It offers three possibilities: One is a Tarshish (or Tarsos) located 130 kilometers northwest of Alexandria and located in the south of contemporary Turkey. A second possibility is a city called Tartessos located on the southern coast of Spain, near the Straits of Gibraltar. Da’at Mikra notes that some suggest a third possibility and identify the Tarshish of Sefer Yonah as a different city located along the Mediterranean coast.
Why is the location important for us to know? Da’at Mikra explains that Yonah is heading in the opposite direction of Nineveh. Nineveh lies to the east of Israel, where Yonah is located, and Yonah attempts to escape to the west. If Tarshish is indeed in modern Spain, then Yonah’s rebellion is even more striking: Spain was regarded as the farthest western point on earth during the time of Sefer Yonah.
Professor Simon: The Spain Option
Professor Uriel Simon argues for the Spain identification. He notes:
“In three different passages (Yeshayahu 60:6-9, Yechezkeil 38:13, and Tehillim 72:10), the full geographical extent of the known world is delimited by Tarshish at one end and Sheva at the other. Given that the latter lies in the east (in the southern Arabian peninsula), at the end of the overland caravan route, the other must lie in the uttermost west, at the end of the maritime trade route.”
Professor Simon argues that the threefold mention of Tarshish in Pasuk 3 stresses the point that Yonah “was not merely seeking to leave the Land of Israel by sea and flee to whatever destination the first ship might carry him, but in fact was trying to sail to the farthest possible point from his assigned destination.” Indeed, the Spain option seems to fit best with Yonah’s motivation. It’s in the opposite direction of his mission, it’s the most drastic of places to go, and it gives him peace of mind that the status quo will continue to exist just as he wants.
Supporting the Spain Option
Yonah most certainly presents throughout the sefer as a character who goes to extremes. In both Perek 1 and Perek 4 he makes crystal clear his willingness to die for his beliefs. Despite the great pressure placed on him in Perek 1 by both the storm and the sailors to repent, Yonah refuses to relent. In Perek 2 he does not call out to Hashem until he has spent three full days in the large fish. Chazal (Nedarim 38a) understand that Yonah paid the fare for the entire ship, expending an enormous sum to achieve his goals. Understanding Yonah as fleeing all the way to Spain is quite compatible with his temperament and personality.
According to Rashi, Yonah fleeing to Tarshish expresses his desire to avoid his mission. According to Da’at Mikra and Professor Simon, Yonah’s flight is much stronger: Yonah seeks to flee as far as possible away from Eretz Yisrael. Yonah seeks to do the exact opposite of what Hashem commands, as Yonah is a person of extremes. Yonah rarely rebels against Hashem, but when he does rebel against Hashem it is done in the most intense manner possible.
What does this have to do with Yom Kippur? Yonah’s flight ultimately fails. Hashem “finds” him and Yonah suffers the consequences. As we stand in judgment for our deeds, both good and bad, we may feel the urge to flee, even to the ends of the Earth, to escape the judgment of Hashem. We are reminded by the opening events of the sefer that even a flight to a modern-day Tarshish will not remove us from the eyes of Hashem. We must address our failings rather than hopelessly fleeing from them.
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.