Before discussing where the lost ten tribes actually went, let us first ascertain whether they are in fact ever going to be reunited with the remaining Jews.
There is a recorded dispute between two great sages in the Mishnah as to whether the ten tribes are going to come back:
Rabbi Akiva says, “The ten tribes will not return, as the verse says (Deuteronomy 29:27), ‘And the L‑rd uprooted them from upon their land, with fury, anger and great wrath, and He cast them to another land, as it is this day.’ Just as a day passes and it will never return, so too, they will be exiled never to return.”
Rabbi Eliezer says, “Just like a day is followed by darkness, and the light later returns, so too, although it will become ‘dark’ for the ten tribes, G‑d will ultimately take them out of their darkness.”
The Talmud then goes on to cite a third opinion:
Rabbi Shimon ben Yehudah, of the town of Acco, says in the name of Rabbi Shimon: “If their deeds are as this day’s, they will not return; otherwise they shall.”
So, in short, there seem to be three opinions on the matter. Rabbi Akiva holds that the ten tribes are not coming back; Rabbi Eliezer holds that they are; and Rabbi Shimon says that it depends on whether they repent.
Rabbi Akiva: Lost Forever
Upon further analysis, Rabbi Akiva’s opinion needs further explanation, as it seem to contradict clear prophecies about the ultimate reunion of the ten tribes with the rest of Israel.
The prophet Ezekiel describes the ultimate reunion between the ten tribes and the tribe of Judah (the ten tribes are represented by the tribe of Ephraim, because their capital was in the territorial portion of that tribe):
Say to them, “So says the L‑rd G‑d: ‘Behold I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his companions, and I will place them with him with the stick of Judah, and I will make them into one stick, and they shall become one in My hand.’” And the sticks upon which you shall write shall be in your hand before their eyes. And say to them, “So says the L‑rd G‑d: ‘Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be to them all as a king; and they shall no longer be two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore.’”
Additionally, the prophet clearly foretells in detail how Israel will be divided into thirteen portions at the time of the redemption. So what exactly does Rabbi Akiva mean when he says that the ten tribes are not coming back?
Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380–1444) attempts to reconcile these prophecies with Rabbi Akiva’s opinion by explaining that Rabbi Akiva was of the view that the prophecies had been fulfilled during the era of the second Holy Temple in Jerusalem. However, this is problematic in light of the fact that in the Midrash, Rabbi Akiva himself compares the exile of the ten tribes from Israel to that of a widow, which implies that they are gone and will not return.
Did They Already Return?
While many have the idea that all Jews now are descendants of only two and a half tribes, the truth is that when the ten tribes were captured and sent into exile, a tenth of their population remained. As the prophet Amos proclaims, “For so said the L‑rd G‑d: The city that gives forth a thousand shall remain with a hundred, and the one that gives forth a hundred shall remain with ten, of the house of Israel.”
Additionally, there is another account of the return of some of the ten tribes: King Josiah undertook to restore the Holy Temple, which had been neglected for a long time. While the restoration was taking place under the supervision of the high priest Hilkiah, an ancient Torah scroll from the time of Moses was found. This unique Torah scroll had been kept in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, but in the time of the idol-worshipping kings an upright priest removed it from there and hid it in a secret place in the Temple. When the Torah scroll was opened and read, it opened to the section in Deuteronomy containing an admonition, where G‑d warns the Jewish people of the terrible consequences of neglecting the Torah and the commandments, leading to destruction and exile.
The king, deeply shaken and heartbroken, tore his clothes and ordered Hilkiah and four other royal messengers to go to the holy prophets to inquire as to what should be done in view of the divine warning that had just been received. The king’s messengers went to the prophetess Huldah, who then prophesied about the impending doom of exile.
The Talmud notes that under normal circumstances, the king should have sent for Jeremiah, who was the leading prophet. However, Jeremiah was on a divine mission to the ten tribes, and in fact he actually gathered them up and returned them to Israel, where Josiah ruled over them.
This, however, does not mean that the prophet Jeremiah returned all of the exiles. Rather, he gathered only some people of the ten tribes who had managed to escape while being led into exile. They then joined the rest of the Jewish nation and are included in their history.
In light of the above, we can better understand Rabbi Akiva’s view that the ten tribes will not return. For what he means to say is that all those who are meant to return have already done so; the rest are lost forever, having intermingled with the other nations.
What we are left with, then, is a disagreement as to whether the rest of the lost tribes, those who have not returned, will ever return and be reunited with the rest of the Jewish nation.
Maimonides writes, with regards to this dispute between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer as to whether the lost ten tribes will ever return, that “when there is a dispute in the Talmud that has no actionable relevance to us, Jewish law does not rule either way.”
However, there are those who do rule, and say that we follow Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion that the ten tribes will ultimately be reunited with the rest of Israel at the time of the redemption with the coming of the Moshiach.
This article is one of the three-part series on the lost tribes of Israel. Please have a look at The Exile of the Ten Lost Tribes and Where Are the Ten Lost Tribes?