The Israelite nation that left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai, becoming Gd’s Chosen Nation, consisted of thirteen tribes. Today, however, the Jewish Nation as we know it consists of only three tribes. What happened to the other ten tribes, and will we be reunited with our lost brethren at the time of Mashiah?

Each of the thirteen tribes descends from our forefather Yaakov. Eleven were named after his sons and two were named after his grandsons, the children of Yosef. The tribes lived together for several centuries in the land of Israel, separating into separate kingdoms after the passing of King Solomon. However, in the Hebrew year 3205 (555 BCE), the unrepentant Northern Kingdom of Israel, which consisted of ten of the tribes ruled by the King Hoshea, was invaded and captured by the mighty Assyrian Empire led by the king Sanherev[1]. The entire Northern Kingdom was exiled to an unknown, distant land. Ever since this calamity, the Jewish nation from which we descend is assumed to consist only of the tribes Yehuda, Binyamin, and Levi. Indeed, after the fall of the Northern Kingdom the Scriptures refer to the  Jewish Nation as “Yehudim,” or “Judeans,” because they are mainly from the tribe of Yehuda.[2] Throughout Megilat Esther, for example, the Jews are called “Yehudim.”

A Three-Pronged Exile

The exile of the ten tribes occurred in three distinct stages over a period of approximately twenty years. The first to be exiled were the tribes of Zevulun and Naftali, in the Hebrew year 3187 (573 BCE), during the rule of the Israelite king Pekach. Eight years later (3195/565 BCE), the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were driven into exile, during the rule of King Hoshea. The final stage occurred in 3205 (555 BCE), when Shomron, the Northern Kingdom’s capital city, was conquered, at which point all those remaining from the ten tribes were captured and exiled.[3] The Assyrians attempted to capture the Southern Kingdom of Yehuda and Binyamin, as well, eight years later, during the reign of the righteous Judean King Hizkiyahu. They succeeded in conquering the majority of the kingdom, but when the Assyrian troops reached the capital city of Jerusalem, where the Bet Hamikdash stood, an angel sent by Hashem destroyed their army overnight.[4]

To Where Were They Exiled?

The book of Melachim II (17:6) relates that the Assyrian Empire exiled the ten tribes to the countries of Halach and Havor along the river of Gozen, and in the cities of Madai. The Midrash[5] explains that in each of the three stages of exile, the captives were brought to a different, more distant region. The ten tribes were scattered to such an extent, the Midrash comments, that the distance separating the different groups among the ten tribes is the same as the distance that separates the land of Israel and the river of Gozen. The Midrash adds that the third and final group of exiled tribes was driven to a remote location beyond “the mountains of darkness.”

A different Midrash[6], tells how many members of the ten tribes sincerely repented on their way to exile, and Hashem, accepting their teshuva, sent them a heavenly cloud which lifted them to a magnificent country behind the great seas of ice. These penitent Jews live in that unknown country and will return to us at the time of Mashiah.

The River Sambatyon

The commentaries[7] identify the river Gozen (literally, “the throwing river”) as Sambatyon, the churning river which throws sand and boulders all week long, resting only on Shabbat. The name Sambatyon stems from the root “Sabbat” (Shabbat) and thus alludes to its resting on Shabbat. The Talmud[8] relates that the Roman governor Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva for proof of the sanctity of the Sabbath, and Rabbi Akiva noted that the river Sambatyon proves the status of the seventh day as the world’s day of rest. There is also a documented story of a person who took a bottle of sand from the river Sambatyon, and throughout the week it would churn inside the bottle, settling only on Shabbat[9]. A number of sources comment that the river actually begins its rest on Friday afternoon, two hours before sundown, in accordance with the requirement of tosefet Shabbat-(adding onto Shabbat)[10].

Some sources[11] also note that no water flows in the Sambatyon during the week, as it consists entirely of sand and rocks churning like the waves of the sea. It is only on Shabbat that water flows in the river.

Travelers who have seen the river testified that the churning noise is louder than thunder, and could be heard as far as two days’ walking distance away![12]

The ten tribes were driven across this river, where they have remained trapped ever since. They cannot cross during the week because of the rocks, and of course not on Shabbat because Jewish law prohibits swimming and boating on Shabbat.

The exact location of the river Sambatyon is subject to considerable controversy. The scholars discuss and debate whether it is situated in a remote location in India, Africa, or another distant region. Throughout the ages, the river’s whereabouts have remained shrouded in mystery, but legends abound of people who have come across this extraordinary site. Arguably the most famous of these legends is the story of the pious saddik Rabbi Meir the Hazzan from the city of Worms, Germany. In the year 1096, the rabbis sent Rabbi Meir to cross the Sambatyon and bring a scholar capable of opposing the powers of sorcery used by the wicked bishop in their town to torment the Jews. As the success of his mission was a matter of life and death, Rabbi Meir was permitted to cross the river on Shabbat. After a grueling trek through mountains and deserts, Rabbi Meir crossed the Sambatyon and sent a qualified sage who successfully neutralized the bishop’s sorcery using the powers of kedusha (holiness). Rabbi Meir, who was not permitted to return across the river since the life-saving mission had already been completed, sent back to his colleagues a stirring poem entitled Akdamot which beautifully describes our nation’s desire for redemption. The rabbi instructed his colleagues to read this hymn in the synagogue on Shavuot before the reading of the Torah, a custom observed by all Ashkenazic communities to this very day[13].

A Long, Harsh Exile

Unlike the tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin, who remained in exile for only seventy years and then returned to Eress Yisrael, the ten tribes have still not returned. The commentaries[14] give a number of reasons for why the ten tribes deserved to endure such a long and difficult exile. Firstly, the ten tribes committed the grave sin of seceding from the Gd-chosen kingship of the house of David during the reign of King Solomon’s son Rehavam, dividing the Jewish people into two separate kingdoms. Secondly, the Northern Kingdom, since its inception, formally annulled the fundamental missva of aliyah leregel, the holiday pilgrimages to Yerushalayim where the entire nation beheld the divine presence of Hashem in the Bet Hamikdash. The northern tribes built centers of pagan worship in the cities of Bet El and Dan as substitutes for the Temple in Jerusalem. This was done in order to prevent people from traveling to Yerushalayim, the capital of the Southern Kingdom, and returning their allegiances to the royal house of David. Finally, and most importantly, idolatry was always widespread in the Northern Kingdom, and its pagan influence spread to the Southern Kingdom, causing the two other tribes to sin. They were therefore liable to the severe punishment for idolatry described in the second paragraph of the daily shema: “Vesartem va’avadetem elohim aherim…va’avadetem mehera me’al ha’aress hatova asher Hashem noten lachem – and you will worship alien Gds…and you will quickly perish from the good land that Hashem has given you” (Devarim 11:16-17).

Will They Return Before Mashiah?

The Talmud records a debate[15] among the Sages as to whether the ten tribes were separated from us forever, or will be reunited with us at the time of Mashiah. According to one view, the ten tribes were permanently banished from the Jewish people, and will never return from exile.

At first glance, this view seems to directly contradict explicit predictions by the prophets that the Jewish Nation will once again be comprised of twelve different tribes[16] (the tribe of Levi, which consists of kohanim and leviim is often excluded in references to the “twelve tribes” because they did not receive a portion of land). How can we reconcile this view with the prophecies foreseeing twelve tribes?

The Talmud[17] relates that before the destruction of the First Temple, the prophet Yirmiyahu was sent to bring the exiled ten tribes back to the land of Israel, but succeeded in restoring only a small minority of them. These members of the ten tribes joined Yehuda and have stayed with the Jewish people ever since. Thus, even if the exiles never return, the Jewish nation has in its midst representatives of all twelve tribes. Additionally, some claim that many members of the ten tribes settled in Jerusalem and its environs in order to live in close proximity to the Bet Hamikdash. They were spared the fate of the ten tribes, and have remained as part of the Jewish people ever since.

Returning to the question of whether the exiled tribes will ever return, the widely accepted opinion is that they indeed will return[18]. This is indicated in the words of the prophet Yeshayahu (27:13): “and it will come to be on that day the great shofar will blow and those lost in the land of Ashur (Assyria) will come…and they will bow to Hashem on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” Some scholars claim that the ten tribes will return shortly before the coming of Mashiah, while others maintain that this will occur only after his arrival[19].

This conclusion leaves us with a rather remarkable thought to ponder: when Mashiah arrives, an enormous multitude of people whom we had never seen or heard of before may suddenly surface and join us. All of today’s Jews will constitute but a small minority of the Jewish nation. We can only hope and pray that we will all live to see that special day and experience firsthand the restoration of our nation’s full glory, Amen.

Next issue: Legends and Encounters with the Ten Lost Tribes

[1] See Tractate Sanhedrin 94a

[2] Sefer Hatishbi, p. 125

[3] See Rashi to Melachim 17:1, and Seder Hadorot by Rabbi Yehiel Halpern

[4] Melachim II, chapters 18-19

[5] See Yalkut to Yeshayahu, chapter 49, and Bamidbar Rabba – Parashat Shelah 17:28

[6] See Sefer Tovah Re’eyata pp. 332-333

[7] See Ramban in Perashat He’azinu 32:26 and commentary of Maharzu on Midrash Rabba Perashat Shelah 17

[8] Tractate Sanhedrin 65b

[9] Shenem Asar Shivte Yisrael by Rabbi Moshe Wienstock, page 52

[10] Ibid pp 74-75, 90

[11] Ibid pp 50-53

[12] Ibid pp 90-91.

[13] Ibid pp 70-76

[14] Book of Kings II 17:7-23, see Abarbanel

[15] Tractate Sanedrin 110b

[16] See Yehezkel 37

[17] Tractate Megilah 14b, and Rashi to Tractate Sanhedrin 110b

[18] See Maharal in Nessah Yisrael 34

[19] See Ossrot Aharit Hayamim volume 2, p 26