When the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel and sent the Ten Tribes into exile during the eighth century BCE, they created one of history’s most enduring mysteries. Did these Jews assimilate? Did they create a new community – or even a new kingdom – in some faraway land? In this final part of Jewish Geography, we take a look at some of the Jewish explorers who set off to answer the ultimate question: Where in the world are the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel?
Beyond the Sambatyon
Before one sets out on a journey, it’s a good idea to have a map showing the destination point and the route to get there. Tanach provides a few destinations in II Kings (17:6 and 18: 11), when it tells us to look for the exiles in Halash, Habor, along the Gozan River, and in the cities of Medes. I Chronicles (5:26) adds the city of Hara. According to Chazal, some of these places can be found in what is today Iraq, Iran and Syria. Another location is Afriki, which some assume to be Ethiopia.
Perhaps the most famous site, which is mentioned in Midrash Bereishis Rabba 73:6 and elsewhere, is on the other side of the River Sambatyon. According to legend, the Sambatyon rages for six days of the week, making it impossible to traverse. It is calm only on Shabbos – but it’s still impossible to pass over the river because on this day it’s covered by thick clouds and a devouring fire. As for where to find this famous river, opinions differ. For example, Ramban associates it with the Gozan, Josephus thought it was in Antiochia, and Yalkut Shimoni states it’s beyond Damascus.
One traveler who claimed to have traveled beyond the Sambatyon was Eldad HaDani, who lived in the ninth century. During a visit to Kairouan, in present-day Tunisia, he told the kehillah that he came from a land near Cush (present-day Ethiopia or Sudan), where four of the ten tribes – Naphtali, Gad, Asher and Dan, his own tribe – had established an independent kingdom. He also claimed to have met members of the other tribes during his travels to Persia, Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula: Yissachar and Zevulun lived beyond the Sambatyon; Reuven lived in peace and prosperity beyond Mt. Haran; Ephraim and half of Menashe lived in the mountains near Mecca; the other half of Menashe and Shimon lived in the land of the Chaldeans.
Eldad’s story, which also included an account of being shipwrecked and almost eaten by cannibals, was received with a combination of interest and skepticism. He remains a mysterious figure until today. While we know that the account he wrote of his travels reached Spain, did he really reach China – as his story seems to suggest?
Some historians have dismissed him as a charlatan and his tales as fabrications. Yet a historian of a generation ago, Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz, a former Chief Rabbi of South Africa, treats Eldad with more respect. Among other topics, Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote about the Radanites – the medieval Jewish merchants we met in Part I of this series. In a 1946 article published in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Rabbi Rabinowitz points out that Eldad was a merchant and his travels seem to have followed some of the trade routes used by the Radanites, who did travel to China; thus, Eldad might have reached China too. He also points out that Eldad bases his claim that he is from the tribe of Dan upon the fact that this was an oral tradition passed down from one generation to the next; Jews living in ancient communities in Persia and Arabia also claimed they could trace their ancestry back to the tribes sent into exile by the Assyrians and, therefore, Eldad’s claim wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
But were the Jews Eldad encountered during his life and travels really descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes? The jury is still out.
Into the Desert
During the Middle Ages, there was an intense longing to find the Ten Lost Tribes. One reason, of course, was the hope that if they could be found, the Final Redemption would soon follow. Another reason had to do with the rumors surrounding the tribes, who were supposedly wealthy, powerful and independent of foreign rule – in other words, everything most medieval kehillos were not. Therefore, the search continued.
Benjamin of Tudela was one of the great travelers of the Middle Ages and his book, The Travels of Benjamin, is still read with interest today. He set out from Spain around the year 1165, perhaps on a pilgrimage to Eretz Yisrael. Along with describing the actual Jewish communities he encountered, he mentions a rumor he heard while in Persia: Beyond the River Gozan was the mountain dwelling of four of the lost tribes – Dan, Zevulun, Asher and Naphtali. They had their own prince, Joseph the Levite. Some were scholars, some were farmers and some were soldiers who “go forth to war as far as the land of Cush by way of the desert.”
A century later, the kabbalist Avraham Abulafia set out for Eretz Yisrael with the intention of finding the River Sambatyon and the Ten Lost Tribes. But due to war and chaos in the area, he got no further than Acco and then was forced to return to Europe.
Rabbi Ovadia ben Avraham of Bartenura, author of a famed commentary on the Mishneh, set out for Eretz Yisrael in 1486. He wrote about his travels, mentioning he had learned from the Jews of Aden, a port city in southern Yemen, that the lost tribes lived on the other side of the River Sambatyon in a land that was a journey of about fifty days into the desert.
Not surprisingly, the Bartenura didn’t set off to find them. Yet, just six years later, Christopher Columbus and his crew embarked on a sixty-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and with the discovery of the Americas the search for the lost tribes broadened.
Bartolome de las Casas, a Spanish historian, Dominican friar and human-rights advocate long before the term became popular, was among the first to associate the American Indians with the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. A century later a Portuguese crypto-Jew named Aaron Levi, alias Antonio de Montezinos, was traveling through South America when he encountered an Indian tribe in Ecuador, which he claimed was descended from the tribes of Reuven and Levi. When he later visited Amsterdam, Aaron Levi wrote: “I must share with you some incredible news. There is a Jewish Indian tribe living beyond the mountain passes of the Andes. Indeed, I myself heard them recite the Shema and saw them observe the Jewish rituals.”
One of the people who met with Levi was Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who included Levi’s account in his book Mikveh Israel (Hope of Israel). Menasseh ben Israel dedicated the book to the British parliament and appended it to his petition for the readmission of the Jews to England. The book argued that the messiah would only come when the Jews had been dispersed to every corner of the earth – and Levi’s account proved that this had almost been accomplished. Would England, which had expelled its Jews in 1290, readmit Jews so the messiah could appear? England was then under the rule of the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, and some of the population was experiencing “millennium fever,” waiting expectantly for the Final Redemption to occur. Cromwell agreed to sponsor Menasseh ben Israel’s petition for both religious and commercial reasons. Although the Final Redemption didn’t occur, in 1656 the Jews were allowed to return to England unofficially.
But what of Aaron Levi and his account – did he really meet Hebrew-speaking people, or was the whole thing a fabrication? Today, no one believes the American Indians are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes. But during the 1970s American scholar George Weiner came up with an interesting theory, which he published in the article “America’s Jewish Braves” (Mankind, Oct. 1974). According to Weiner, Aaron Levi did encounter people who knew the Shema, but they were Spanish crypto-Jews hiding from the Inquisition. These Jews lived in isolated rural places far away from Spanish settlements, and they may have converted some of the Indians to Judaism. They also may have hoped to one day overthrow the Spanish overlords and create their own kingdom, as Levi reported – but their origins could only be traced back to Spain. As for Levi, after his meeting with Menasseh ben Israel, he returned to Brazil, where he died, insisting his account was true until the end.
A Dangerous Endeavor
Yet another place where the River Sambatyon was supposedly located was India. Rabbi Avraham Yagel, a sixteenth-century kabbalist, mentions in his writings an account by a Christian traveler named Vincent of Milan. After being held prisoner by the Turks for twenty-five years, Vincent traveled to India, where he said he found the River Sambatyon and Jews richly dressed in silk and purple. These Jews had their own rulers and didn’t pay ransom to any foreign power. Today, it’s thought that while Vincent didn’t reach the Sambatyon, he may have encountered the Jews of Cochin.
Another traveler who thought the Jews of India were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes was Romanian-born Israel Joseph Benjamin, who wrote under the pen name Benjamin the Second (Benjamin of Tudela, his inspiration, being the first). In 1844 Benjamin embarked on a several-years journey to find the Ten Lost Tribes, traveling to Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, and India.
The Perushim, followers of the Vilna Gaon who settled in Eretz Yisrael in the early nineteenth century, also searched for the Ten Lost Tribes after they heard about a “tribe of Jews” living in Yemen. In 1816, they sent two members of their community to that country, accompanied by an Arab escort. The emissaries reached the capital city safely and met with leaders of the Jewish kehillah. But they were disappointed to learn that while there were rumors that the Ten Lost Tribes did live in the wilderness of Yemen, no one knew exactly where. The emissaries returned to Eretz Yisrael and made their report. Several years later, in 1830, Rav Yisrael of Shklov sent Reb Baruch of Pinsk to Yemen with three letters addressed to the king of the tribes. After Reb Baruch heard there was a group of Jews in Aden who were rumored to be descendants of the tribes, he traveled there. Reb Baruch remained in Yemen for some time, and he was asked to help the country’s ailing ruler. But he never met the king of the Ten Lost Tribes or any of their members. Instead, he was murdered in Yemen by the ruler he had tried to heal.
Two other nineteenth-century Jewish travelers lost their lives to the search: Ezekiel Asche, a German-born physician who traveled through Egypt and Yemen and disappeared in Ethiopia, and Rav Moshe Yaffe, who disappeared during his second visit to India.
There were many others who tried to find the Ten Lost Tribes, and in spite of the dangers and disappointments the search continues until today. While there are many contenders – the Bene Israel and Bnei Menashe of India, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, the Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and others, we most likely won’t know for sure who is really who until the pasuk of Isaiah 27:13 is fulfilled: “And 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 worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”