For thousands of years, adventurers and explorers have been fascinated by legends of the lost tribes of Israel. Among Jewish scholars too, the whereabouts of the tribes have been subject to speculation and debate. And while no one has ever conclusively identified them, we have had hints—and perhaps even glimpses—of them throughout their long exile. While over time many have postulated theories about the whereabouts of the lost tribes, it is not our intention to put forth yet another hypothesis. Rather, this article provides a comprehensive look at what Jewish sources have to say about these tribes and their exile.
The verses describing the exile of the ten tribes by the Assyrians comprise only a few short passages in II Kings and I Chronicles. The text enumerates some of the places the tribes were sent: Halah, Habor, Hara, the Gozan River and the cities of Media. The sages of the Talmud place some of these locations in what are now Iraq, Iran and Syria. However, they also maintain that the tribes have intermarried. Thus, their offspring cannot be considered Jewish:
[What are these places?]
Halah is Halazon; Habor is Hadayeb; the river of Gozan is Ginzak; the cities of Media are Hamadan and its neighboring towns. Some say [the cities of Media are] Nihar and its neighboring towns.
What are the neighboring towns of Nihar?
Shmuel said: Kerech, Mushchei, Hidki and Dumakaya.
Rabbi Yochanan said [in reference to the residents of these places]: “All of these were enumerated to [declare their residents] genealogically unfit.”
…But there were daughters [whose offspring would be Jewish, even if they intermarried]? . . . There is a tradition that the [the women of the exiled tribes] were sterilized.
Others read: When I mentioned the matter in the presence of Shmuel, he said to me, “[The sages] did not move from there until they had declared them to be perfect gentiles, as it is said in the Scriptures, ‘They have dealt treacherously against the L‑rd, for they have begotten strange children.’”
That would seem to settle the issue of whether or not the ten tribes still exist as a nation today.
However, as discussed in Are the Ten Lost Tribes Ever Coming Back? the assertion that the tribes have assimilated appears to be contradicted by a subsequent discussion in the Talmud about these tribes’ return to Israel with the coming of Moshiach.
Rabbi David Bonfil (13th century) resolves the conflict by explaining that only the tribes exiled to Media became assimilated. He maintains that portions of the tribes were exiled to other places, and it is they who will return during the messianic era.
Indeed, the sages of the Talmud and Midrash offer a number of alternative locations for the exiled tribes, including Afriki (commonly translated as Africa) and the Mountains of Selug.
One place where we read of other destinations is the Jerusalem Talmud:
Rabbi Berachiah and Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman:
To three places was Israel exiled: one to beyond the Sambatyon River, one to Daphne of Antiochia, and one to where the clouds came down and covered them.
In the same way that [the ten tribes] were exiled to three places, so too were the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh exiled to three places.
For what reason? “[Because] you went in your sister’s way, I shall put her cup into your hand.”
And when they shall return, so too will Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh return with them.
How do we know all this? From the verse in Isaiah which states, “Say to the prisoners go forth”—these are those exiled beyond the Sambatyon River. “To them that are in darkness, show yourselves”—these are those upon whom the cloud descended and covered. “They shall feed in the ways, and in all high places their pastures”—these are those who were exiled to Daphne of Antiochia.
The Midrash gives a similar account of where the exiles went, but adds a description of their miraculous return as well:
To three places were the ten tribes exiled. Some were exiled to the Sambatyon River. Another group was exiled to a distant land behind the Sambatyon River; this land was twice as far from Israel as the first. The third group was “swallowed in Rivlathah.” [G‑d will] “say to the prisoners go forth,” to those are those exiled were exiled to the Sambatyon River. [And He will say] “to them that are in darkness, show yourselves” to those exiled to a distant land behind the Sambatyon River.
And for those who were swallowed in Rivlathah, G‑d will create for them underground tunnels, and they will travel through them until they reach the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. G‑d will stand on the mountain, causing it to split, and the ten tribes will emerge from within, as the verse states, “On that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem from the east, and the Mount of Olives will split in the midst thereof—toward the east and toward the west—a very great valley. Half the mountain will move to the north, and half of it to the south.”
Perhaps the best-known legend connected to the lost tribes is that of the Sambatyon River mentioned above. It is said that for six days a week the river rages, making it impossible to cross, and on the seventh day the waters “rest.” In fact, when the Roman governor Tinneius Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “How do you know your reckoning of the Sabbath is correct?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “The River Sa[m]batyon proves it, for during six days of the week its waters flow turbulently, and on the Sabbath it subsides.”
Tales of this wondrous river have arisen again and again throughout subsequent Jewish history whenever there was an incident of purported contact with the ten tribes. The earliest account recorded in post-Talmudic times was given by the fascinating and yet controversial Eldad ha-Dani.
Eldad ha-Dani and the Bnei Moshe
In the late 9th century, a man calling himself Eldad ha-Dani, “Eldad from the tribe of Dan,” appeared in the Jewish community of Kairouan (in present-day Tunisia). He claimed to have come from a land called Chavilah, near the Sambatyon River, where the four tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher lived. He further claimed to have traveled extensively and met people from the tribes of Reuben, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh and Simeon.
Although the Jews of Kairouan received Eldad with respect, they were unsure if they should believe his tale. They sent the following inquiry to Rabbi Tzemach bar Chaim, Gaon of Sura (in Babylonia), the leader of world Jewry at that time:
. . . This Eldad understands no word of either Arabic or Ethiopian, only Hebrew. His Hebrew, however, contains words that we have never heard before. For example, he calls a pigeon a tintira, a bird a raikus, and a pepper a darmush. Many such words have fallen from his lips when we have shown him an object, and when we repeated the experiment several days later, he used the same word to describe the same object.
Their oral tradition is in pure Hebrew, and as we have already stated, no scholar is mentioned there. Rather, each law is prefaced with the words, “So we have learned from Joshua, who accepted this from Moses, who received it from G‑d.” He has taught us some of their laws, and we realized that their Torah is one [with ours]; there are, however, certain small differences. We felt it necessary to present these differences to our master, because some of them are unsettling . . .
. . . He related with regards to the legendary river, that when the Jews were exiled to Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the first Holy Temple, the Chaldeans confronted Moses’ descendants [on the shores of the rivers of Babylonia] and demanded that they play on their harps those songs that had been performed in the Temple. They began crying before G‑d, saying, “How can those fingers which played before You in the Holy Temple perform on this unholy land?” They therefore amputated their thumbs with their teeth. A cloud appeared that night, and took them—together with their tents, sheep and cattle—to the land of Chavilah. [Eldad’s] ancestors, who lived at the time in Chavilah, heard a mighty noise that night, as if an earthquake had struck, and in the morning they saw a multitude of people surrounded by a new river throwing up stones and dirt.
That river, the Sambatyon, still throws up stones and dirt, but no water, in a great tumult; if it would meet a mountain of iron, it would quickly destroy it. This waterless river continuously bubbles with stones and dirt six days a week; only on the Shabbat does it rest. On Friday a cloud settles on its surface, preventing anyone from approaching (although it has stopped boiling), and remains there until after the Sabbath. For that reason it is called Sambatyon, or Sambatino, from the word Sabbath. There are narrow portions of this river, no more than 60 cubits across, where they can stand on one side while we stand on the other and call to each other. Nevertheless, they are absolutely imprisoned by this river, neither leaving nor receiving visitors…
…[The new arrivals] told the original settlers from Dan about the destruction of the Holy Temple, something about which the Danites had been totally unaware. However, only the tribe of Dan was there at this time; Gad, Asher and Naphtali arrived after the destruction of the Temple. They had been living with Issachar, but Issachar was taunting them, calling them the sons of maidservants. These three tribes were concerned that actual battle between themselves and Issachar should not break out, so they left and traveled to where Dan already resided . . .
Rabbi Tzemach Gaon responded, agreeing that much of Eldad’s tale was consistent with Jewish tradition. He attributed the inaccuracies to the trials and tribulations of Eldad’s travels.
Indeed, Eldad’s tale about the descendants of Moses is also found in Targum Yonatan ben Uziel:
G‑d said: [Although] I make a covenant that I will not exchange this nation for another, from you [Moses] shall come a righteous multitude; and with all your people will I do wondrous things in the time when they go into captivity by the rivers of Babylon. For I will bring them up from there, and make them dwell from within the River Sambatyon . . .
The Talmud explains that Moses merited to father a great nation because after the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, G‑d told him, “Leave Me alone, and I will destroy them and obliterate their name from beneath the heavens, and I will make you into a nation . . .” Moses prayed, and G‑d ultimately forgave Israel. Nonetheless, “no word of blessing issued from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, even if based upon a condition, was ever withdrawn.” As such, a great nation was destined to descend from Moses.
The authenticity of Eldad ha-Dani’s story was debated throughout the Middle Ages. Many prominent medieval rabbis cite his writings as a valid source of Jewish law. Others dismiss him as an impostor and his writings as fantasy.
While Eldad ha-Dani provided more details than anyone else about the ten tribes, he was not the only one to present himself as their emissary. In the year 1524, a man calling himself David ha-Reuveni appeared. He claimed to have come from the desert of Habor, where the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh resided.
David further claimed that his elder brother, Joseph, was ruler over these three tribes, and had appointed David as his military general. David said he was on a mission—on behalf of his brother—to convince the rulers of Europe to join forces with his Jewish army and invade the Muslim-dominated Middle East in order to liberate the Land of Israel from Islamic rule.
Initially, his quest was met with resounding success. He managed to meet several times with Pope Clement VII, who gave him letters of recommendation to the kings of Portugal and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). After several years of diplomatic maneuvering, however, David was arrested in 1532 by Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire on charges that he was causing many conversos to return to Judaism. The authorities handed him over to the inquisitors in Spain, where he most likely died in prison.
So, Where Are They?
While there haven’t been any other major reports of “actual” emissaries from the ten lost tribes, there have been many other supposed discoveries and sightings of the ten lost tribes by travelers and explorers throughout history. This has resulted in an abundance of theories, however far-fetched they may be, about their present-day whereabouts. The list includes places such as Africa, Japan, China, India, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, the Caucasus, Yemen, Persia, and even the Americas.
Before the entire globe was explored, people postulated that perhaps the tribes were in some yet undiscovered region. Speculation spiked with the discovery of the Americas, the “new world.” In 1655, the great Jewish philosopher and advocate Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel used the theory that the Native Americans were descended from the ten tribes to support his petition to Oliver Cromwell for the Jews’ readmittance into Britain. (They had been expelled by King Edward I in 1290.)
Hidden Potential—Unity in Israel
Rabbi Yehuda Loewe (d. 1609), the “Maharal of Prague,” taught that we will never discover the tribes by searching. He explained that the exile of the ten tribes is a divine decree that will not be rescinded until the messianic era. Even knowing their whereabouts would already be a measure of reunification, and G‑d has decreed that there not be reunification until the time of the final redemption. In other words, ultimately it is G‑d’s decree that is holding us back from discovering the ten lost tribes.
Additionally, Maharal suggests a non-literal interpretation of the Midrash quoted above which describes the exile and reunification of the ten tribes.
At present, he explains, these tribes exist only in potential (this is the reason they are not mentioned by name). In fact, their potential is so obscured that it is as if they do not exist at all. G‑d bringing the tribes out from under the earth is another way of saying that He will transform this potential into a reality. The earth is particularly suited to this metaphor, as it already contains the potential for bringing forth fruit. Hence the reference to the Mount of Olives.
He adds that it is for this reason that the Midrash states, “To three places were the ten tribes exiled,” to indicate that they were separated from the Jewish nation in three ways:
One is in distance, which is why it says that they were exiled to the Sambatyon River.
The second exile is to indicate that not only are they separated in distance, but that there are obstacles in the way as well. This is the meaning of the statement that they were exiled to a distant land behind the Sambatyon River.
And the third way in which they are separated is that they were exiled among the nations and were “swallowed up” amongst them to such an extent that they themselves do not necessarily know that they are of the ten tribes. This is why it says that the ten tribes were taken to exile and “were swallowed”: they have totally forgotten their Jewish Identity, as if it has been “swallowed” by some external force…
Regardless of the current whereabouts of the ten tribes—whether they are hidden in some remote, impenetrable place, or whether they have been “swallowed up” within the other nations—G‑d has decreed that they will ultimately return in the time of the final redemption: “It shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar shall be sounded, and those lost in the land of Assyria and those exiled in the land of Egypt shall come, and they shall prostrate themselves before the L‑rd on the holy mount in Jerusalem.”
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 Are the Ten Lost Tribes Ever Coming Back?