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Ancient Jewish History:
The Ten Lost Tribes


Ancient Jewish History: Table of Contents | 12 Tribes of Israel | The Two Kingdoms


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The ten lost tribes refers to the legend concerning the fate of the ten tribes constituting the northern Kingdom of Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel - consisting of the ten tribes (the twelve tribes excluding Judah and Benjamin who constituted the southern Kingdom of Judah) - fell in 722 B.C.E. and its inhabitants were exiled by the Assyrians. In general, it can be said that these tribes disappeared from the stage of history. However, the passage in I Chronicles 5:26 to the effect that the ten tribes were there "unto this day" and the prophecies of Isaiah (11:11), Jeremiah (31:8), and above all of Ezekiel (37: 19–24) kept alive the belief that they had maintained a separate existence and that the time would come when they would be rejoined with their brethren, the descendants of the Exile of Judah to Babylon. Their place in history, however, is substituted by legend, and the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes is one of the most fascinating and persistent in Judaism and beyond it.

The belief in the continued existence of the ten tribes was regarded as an incontrovertible fact during the whole period of the Second Temple and of the Talmud. *Tobit , the hero of the apocryphal book of his name, was depicted as a member of the tribe of Naphtali; the Testament of the 12 Patriarchs takes their existence as a fact; and in his fifth vision, IV Ezra (13:34–45) saw a "peaceable multitude… these are the ten tribes which were carried away prisoners out of their own land." Josephus (Ant., 11:133) states as a fact "the ten tribes are beyond the Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude and not to be estimated in numbers." Paul (Acts 26:6) protests to Agrippa that he is accused "for the hope of the promise made unto our fathers, unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God, hope to come," while James addresses his epistle to "the twelve tribes which are scattered about" (1:1). The only opposing voice to this otherwise universal view is found in the Mishnah. R. Eliezer expresses his view that they will eventually return and "after darkness is fallen upon the ten tribes light shall thereafter dwell upon them," but R. Akiva expresses his emphatic view that "the ten tribes shall not return again" (Sanh. 10:3). In consonance with this view, though it is agreed that Leviticus 26:38 applies to the ten tribes, where R. Meir maintains that it merely refers to their exile, Akiva states that it refers to their complete disappearance (Sifra, Be-Ḥukkotai, 8:1).

Their inability to rejoin their brethren was attributed to the fact that whereas the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (the Kingdom of Judah) were "scattered throughout the world," the ten tribes were exiled beyond the mysterious river *Sambatyon (Gen. R. 73:6), with its rolling waters or sand and rocks, which during the six days of the week prevented them from crossing it, and though it rested on the Sabbath, the laws of the Sabbath rendered the crossing equally impossible. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, however (Sanh. 10:6, 29c), the exiles were divided into three. Only one-third went beyond the Sambatyon, a second to "Daphne of Antioch," and over the third "there descended a cloud which covered them"; but all three would eventually return.

Throughout the Middle Ages and until comparatively recent times there were claims of the existence of the ten lost tribes as well as attempts by travelers and explorers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and by many naive scholars, both to discover the ten lost tribes or to identify different peoples with them. In the ninth century *Eldad ha-Dani claimed not only to be a member of the tribe of Dan, but that he had communicated with four of the tribes. David *Reuveni claimed to be the brother of Joseph the king of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh who were settled in Khaybar in Arabia, which was identified with the Habor of II Kings. Benjamin of Tudela has a long description of the ten tribes. According to him the Jews of Persia stated that in the town of *Nishapur dwelt the four tribes of Dan, Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, who were then governed "by their own prince Joseph Amarkala the Levite [ed. by N.M. Adler (1907), 83], while the Jews of Khaybar are of the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh" (ibid., 72), as was also stated by Reuveni. Persistent was the legend that they warred with Prester John in Ethiopia, a story repeated by Obadiah of *Bertinoro in his first two letters from Jerusalem in 1488 and 1489. The kabbalist Abraham Levi the elder, in 1528, identified them with the Falashas (see *Beta Israel ). Abraham *Farissol gives a long account of them based upon conversations with David Reuveni not to be found in the latter's diary, while the most expansive is that of Abraham *Jagel , an Italian Jew of the 16th–17th centuries, in the 22nd chapter of his Beit Ya'ar ha-Levanon.

Jacob *Saphir (1822–1888) cherished the hope that he would discover the lost tribes. He tells the story in great detail of Baruch b. Samuel, a Jew of Safed who, sent to seek them, had visited Yemen and after traveling through an uninhabited desert established contact with a Jew who claimed to belong to the "sons of Moses." However, Baruch was murdered before he could visit them (Even Sappir, 1 (1866), 41), and in the following chapter Saphir transcribes word for word the evidence given by a certain Baruch Gad to the rabbis of Jerusalem in 1647 that he had met the "sons of Moses" in Persia, who gave him a letter to Jerusalem. He concludes wistfully, "Were I able to give full credence to this letter… I would subject it to a meticulous analysis and wod learn from it matters of supreme importance, but the recollection of the fraud of Eldad ha-Dani brings suspicion upon Baruch the Gadite, for one supports the other… I have done my duty by putting the facts down and you may judge for yourselves and I will hear also what contemporary scholars say about it."

Various theories, one more farfetched than the other, have been adduced, on the flimsiest of evidence, to identify different peoples with the ten lost tribes. There is hardly a people, from the Japanese to the British, and from the Red Indians to the Afghans, who have not been suggested, and hardly a place, among them Africa, India, China, Persia, Kurdistan, Caucasia, the U.S., and Great Britain. Special interest is attached to the fantastic traveler's tale told by Aaron (Antonio) Levi de *Montezinos who, on his return to Amsterdam from South America in 1644, told a remarkable story of having found Indians beyond the mountain passes of the Cordilleras who greeted him by reciting the Shema. Among those to whom Montezinos gave his affidavit was *Manasseh Ben Israel , then rabbi of Amsterdam, who fully accepted the story, and to it devoted his Hope of Israel (1650, 16522) which he dedicated to the English Parliament. In section 37 he sums up his findings in the following words:

"1. That the West Indies were anciently inhabited by a part of the ten Tribes, which passed thither out of Tartary, by the Streight of Anian. 2. That the Tribes are not in any one place, but in many; because the Prophets have fore-told their return shall be into their Country, out of divers places; Isaiah especially saith it shall be out of eight. 3. That they did not return to the Second Temple. 4. That at this day they keep the Jewish Religion. 5. That the prophecies concerning their return to their Country, are of necessity to be fulfilled. 6. That from all coasts of the World they shall meet in those two places, sc. Assyria and Egypt; God preparing an easier, pleasant way, and abounding with all things, as Isaiah saith, ch. 49, and from thence they shall flie to Jerusalem, as birds to their nests. 7. That their Kingdom shall be no more divided; but the twelve Tribes shall be joined together under one Prince, that is under Messiah, the Son of David; and that they shall never be driven out of their Land."

The Latin work was translated into English the same year it was published, and ran through three editions in as many years, and Manasseh Ben Israel used this "evidence" of the dispersal of the Jews throughout the world as an argument to Oliver *Cromwell in his appeal to permit the return of the Jews to England, then the only country which had no Jews. As long as this situation existed, the fulfillment of the prophecy that the coming (or the second coming) of the Messiah would take place only when the Jews were scattered in the four quarters of the world (section 35). Both through the translation and the correspondence which the story initiated between Manasseh Ben Israel and theologians in England, it played a significant role in creating the atmosphere which eventually brought about the return of the Jews to England.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica

A. Neubauer, in: JQR, 1 (1889), 14-28, 95-114, 185-201, 408-23; A. Hyamson, ibid., 15 (1903), 640-76; C. Roth, A Life of Menasseh Ben Israel (1934), 178-93; A.H. Godbey, The Lost Tribes, a Myth (1930); L. Wolf, Menasseh Ben Israel's Mission to Oliver Cromwell (1901), 17-56; D. Tamar, in: Sefunot, 6 (1962), 303-10. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Halkin, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel (2002); T. Parfitt, Lost Tribes of Israel (2003); idem, Thirteenth Gate, Travels among the Lost Tribes of Israel (1987).

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