For the week ending 24 July 2004 / 6 Av 5764

The Lost Jews The Ten Tribes

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
Become a Supporter Library Library

From: Christopher in Minneapolis

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for your very interesting and informative answers on a variety of Jewish subjects. Perhaps you could give me your opinion on the following: I recently saw a documentary that explained that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel were exiled to the Far East and settled along the Silk Road as far as China. What do Jewish sources say about this? Are they or their customs really Jewish? What does Judaism say about whether these "lost" tribes will ever be reunited with the Jewish people? Thanks in advance for taking time to answer.

Dear Christopher,

Thank you for your kind words, and thanks for asking such fascinating questions. Since there is a lot to be said about all that you asked, Ill have to answer in a few installments: Where are the Lost Tribes? Are they or their customs Jewish? Will they reunite with the Jewish people?

As you know, Jacob had 12 sons: Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob blessed Josephs sons that they should be like Reuben and Shimon, meaning Ephraim and Menashe were elevated to the status of Tribes. Thus, there were a total of 13 tribes but only 12 inherited the Land, since the tribe of Levi was given special Levite cities scattered throughout the rest of the tribes. Around 1000 BCE, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned. Two hundred years later around 800 BCE, the Kingdom split in two. The Northern Kingdom was ruled by Yerovam of Ephraim, and contained 9 tribes. The Southern Kingdom was ruled by Rehavam of Judah, and contained the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Shimon.

The Tribes of the Northern Kingdom were exiled in three stages. In approximately 600 BCE, Pekach who ruled the northern kingdom invited Rezin, the non-Jewish King of Aram, to wage war against Achaz, who ruled the Southern Kingdom. Achaz then aligned with Tiglat-pileser of Assyria who defeated Rezin and invaded the northernmost part of Israel, exiling Dan, Naphtali, Asher and Zebulon (II Kings 16:1-9). At that time, Hoshea killed Pekach and ruled the remaining tribes of the north for ten years until a new king of Assyria, Shalmanesser, invaded the tribes east of the Jordan River, exiling half of Menashe, Gad and Reuben (ibid 17:1-3). After another ten years, Hoshea rebelled against Assyria and Shalmanesser invaded a second time, exiling the rest of Menashe, Issachar and Ephraim (ibid 17:4-6). [Some of Levi was exiled with the northern Kingdom; while Judah, Benjamin, Shimon and some of Levi were exiled to Babylon some 130 years later.]

Where were the Tribes exiled? "The King of Ashshur (Assyria) carried Israel away into Ashshur, and placed them in Chalach [Iraq] and in Chavor by the river of Gozan [Syria] and in the cities of the Maday [Iran]" (II Kings 17:6). In addition to Assyria, they were also exiled through Egypt to Patros on the southern Nile, and Cush [Ethiopia] (Isaiah 11:11). The Talmud also says the tribes were exiled to both Africa and to the mountains of selug (snow), quite possibly referring to Ethiopia and to the mountains of western Iran (Sanhedrin 94b). Similarly, the famous Jewish historian of Roman times, Josephus Flavius wrote, "The Ten Tribes are beyond the Euphrates until this day, and are an immense multitude whose numbers cannot be estimated" (Antiquities 11:33).

The Midrash (Breishet Rabba 73:6) says the tribes were exiled beyond the River Sambatyon. Sambatyon in Greek means the River of Shabbat, since all week it flows with tremendous turbulence, and on the Sabbath it rests. Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, "How do you know your reckoning of the Sabbath is correct? Rabbi Akiva answered, "The River Sambatyon proves it (Sanhedrin 65b). A Jewish explorer of the 900s, Eldad of the tribe of Dan, claimed to have seen the Sambatyon: It "still rolls boulders and sand without water, with a great tremor and roar, such that if it collided with a mountain of iron it would pulverize it. The river flows this way all six days of the week, rolling boulders and sand without any water, and on the Sabbath it rests. When the sun sets Friday evening, a cloud descends upon the river, and no man is able to come near it until the end of the Sabbath." Eldad identified the river in Africa between Sudan and Ethiopia, while Rabbi Samuel of Tzangoli said its in Egypt. Others claimed its in the East: Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (Mikve Israel) said its near the Caspian Sea in Iran, while Rabbi Avraham Pritzel (Orchot Olam) said its the Ganges River in India.

Another Jewish traveler, Benjamin of Tudelo (Spain c. 1165) related, "There are men of Israel in the land of Persia who say that in the mountains dwell four of the tribes of Israel, namely, the tribe of Dan, the tribe of Zebulon, the tribe of Asher, and the tribe of Naphtali. They are governed by their own prince, Joseph the Levite. Among them are learned scholars. They sow and reap and go forth to war as far as the land of Cush, by way of the desert. They are in league with the Kofar-al-Turak, pagan tribesmen who worship the wind and live in the wilderness." During his visit to Arabia he wrote, "These tribesmen are of the tribes Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Menashe. Their seat of government is a great city surrounded by the mountains of the North. The Jews of Kheibar have built many large fortified cities. The yoke of the gentiles is not upon them. They go forth to pillage and to capture booty in conjunction with the Arabs their neighbors."

From all of these sources, we find that the Tribes of Israel were exiled south to Ethiopia, and East through Syria, Iraq, Iran and as far as India [This should not be confused with those Jews who settled these lands much later, after the exile in Roman times]. Next time well see evidence in our sources to include Afghanistan, China and perhaps even Japan, and well discuss whether they or their customs are Jewish.

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to Ask!

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.