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Encyclopedia Judaica: Sambatyon

SAMBATYON (also Sanbatyon and Sabbatyon), a legendary river across which part of the ten tribes were exiled by the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, and which rested on the Sabbath. The river is mentioned in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (Ex. 34:10): "I will take them from there and place them on the other side of the Sambatyon River." The rabbis declared that the ten tribes were exiled three times: once beyond the Sambatyon River, once to Daphne of Antioch, and once when the divine cloud descended upon them and covered them (TJ, Sanh. 10:6, 29c; Lam. R. 2:9; cf. Gen. R. 73:6). The first ascription of miraculous qualities to this river is found in the Talmud. When *Tinneius Rufus asked R. Akiva how he could prove that the Sabbath was divinely ordained as the day of rest, he replied, "Let the River Sambatyon prove it" (Sanh. 65b). It was unnavigable on weekdays because it flowed with strong currents carrying along stones with tremendous force, but it rested on the Sabbath (Gen. R. 11:5). These passages give no indication as to the supposed location of the river or of the origin of its name. The only inference that can be drawn from them is that it was located in Media. The most extensive description of both its name and locality is given by Naḥmanides (to Deut. 32:26). He identified the river with the River Gozan of the Bible (e.g., II Kings 17:6), explaining the name (on the basis of Num. 11:31) as meaning "removed," i.e., the ten tribes were "removed" from the rest of their people. Naḥmanides also held that its name derived from its Sabbath rest, since Sabbat was the local word for the Sabbath.

Pliny the Elder (24–79 C.E.) described the river in his Natural History, and his observations agree with the rabbinic sources. He also claimed that the river ran rapidly for six days in the week and rested on the Sabbath (31:24). This characteristic of the Sambatyon prevented the ten tribes from leaving their place of exile, since they could not cross the river during the six days of the week, and though it rested on the seventh day, the restrictions on travel on the Sabbath rendered the crossing equally impossible (see *Ten Lost Tribes ). Josephus, however, described the periodicity of this river in a different fashion, claiming that it was quiescent on weekdays and flowed only on the Sabbath. He related that when Titus marched from Beirut to the other Syrian cities, displaying the Jewish captives, he observed a unique river. It ran between Arce, at the northern extremity of the Lebanon range, and Raphanea. Josephus adds: "It has an astonishing peculiarity. For, when it flows, it is a copious stream with a current far from sluggish; then all at once its sources fail, and for the space of six days it presents the spectacle of a dry bed; again, as though no change had occurred, it pours forth on the seventh day just as before. And it has always been observed to keep strictly to this order; whence they have called it the Sabbatical river, so naming it after the sacred seventh day of the Jews" (Jos., Wars, 7:96–99). According to this description there is no explanation for the inability of the ten tribes to cross the Sambatyon during the weekdays.

In the post-talmudic period, especially in the apocryphal literature, legends about the Sambatyon increased. The exact date that the ten tribes were to return from their places of exile during the messianic period was recorded in the Sefer Eliyahu. Tishrei 25 was designated for the return of those beyond the Sambatyon. Although 17,000 men and women would leave this area, 20 men and 15 women would be killed on the way to the Holy Land (Judah ibn Samuel, Midreshei Ge'ullah (19542) 31f., 43; cf. Num. R. 16:25). *Eldad ha-Dani claimed that the Sambatyon did not surround the land of the ten tribes but rather that of the children of Moses. These people originated as a result of God's promise to Moses that "I will make of thee a great nation" (Ex. 32:10). Eldad depicted the river as consisting entirely of sand and stones. His description was as follows:

"The children of Moses are surrounded by a river resembling a fortress, which contains no water but rather rolls sand and stones with great force. If it encountered a mountain of iron it could undoubtedly grind it into powder. On Friday, at sunset, a cloud surrounds the river, so that no man is able to cross it. At the close of the Sabbath the river resumes its normal torrent of stones and sand. The general width of the river is 200 ells, but in certain places it is only 60 ells wide, so that we may talk to them, but neither of us can cross to the other one's side" (A. Epstein 5f.).

*Pethahiah of Regensburg, the 12th-century Jewish traveler, claimed that in Jabneh there was a spring which ran six days a week, but ceased to flow on the Sabbath (Travels of Rabbi Petachia, ed. by A. Benisch (1865), 56f.). Interest in the Sambatyon legend was revived in the 17th century through the fantastic stories of Gershon b. Eliezer ha-Levi in his Gelilot Ereẓ Yisrael and by *Manasseh Ben Israel in his Mikveh Yisrael. The former related that, in his journey through India in 1630, he heard the clattering noise of the Sambatyon River, which was a distance of two days' journey from where he was staying. He claimed that the Sambatyon was 17 miles wide and threw stones as high as a house. On the Sabbath it was dry and resembled a lake of snow or of white sand. The river ceased to flow on Friday, two hours before sunset, and during this interval before the start of the Sabbath, the Jews beyond the river raided the neighboring lands. Manasseh Ben Israel, while attempting to prove the existence of the river, claimed that even when its sand is kept in a glass, it is agitated during six days of the week and rests on the Sabbath (Mikveh Yisrael, ch. 10, Lemberg, 1847 ed., p. 10a–b). The Sambatyon also figured in kabbalistic works. In 1260 the kabbalist Abraham *Abulafia traveled to Ereẓ Israel, where he started to search for the Sambatyon. He was trying to contact the Ten Lost Tribes. Sambatyon was also associated with *Shabbetai Ẓevi . The students of *Nathan of Gaza circulated a story after Shabbetai Ẓevi's death that he had gone to the Ten Lost Tribes that live on the other side of the Sambatyon. There he married the daughter of Moses. For a similar tale, see the Letter of Nathan of Gaza to Raphael Joseph (1665; published in Ẓiẓat Novel Ẓevi, ed. Tishby (1954), 11–12). The students were to wait for Shabbetai Ẓevi to return after the seven-day wedding celebration and to redeem them – if they were worthy of it. If they were not worthy, he would stay beyond the Sambatyon and great troubles would befall Israel (Zikkaron li-Venei Yisrael (1676), 68).


E.N. Adler, Jewish Travellers (1930), index; J.D. Eisenstein, Oẓar Massa'ot (1926), 84, 122, 184f.; M. Gruenbaum, in: ZDMG, 23 (1869), 627–30; D. Kaufmann, in: REJ, 22 (1891), 285–7; A. Epstein (ed.), Eldad ha-Dani (1891), introd. 13–16; S. Krauss, Griechische und lateinische Lehnwoerter, 2 (1899), 369f.; J. Theodor and H. Albeck (eds.), Midrash Bereshit Rabba, 1 (19652), 93 n. 3. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Halkin, Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel (2002).

[A. Ro.]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.