Family history and lineage are prominently featured in this final chapter of Kiddushin. In the attempts to clarify where is Babylonia and which communities are trustworthy about their members’ Judaism, the Gemara mentions the exiles from the Kingdom of Israel:
“Rabbi Abba bar Kahana says: What is the meaning of that which is written [with regard to the exile of the ten tribes of the kingdom of Israel:] “And he put them in Halah, and in Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes” (II Kings 18:11)? Halah is Ḥillazon; Habor is Hadyav; the river of Gozan is Ginzak; the cities of the Medes are Ḥamadan and its neighboring towns, and some say: This is Nihavnad and its neighboring towns.” (Kiddushin 72a)
The “lost ten tribes” have sparked the imagination of Jews for millennia. Their story begins two thousand seven hundred years ago in the year 722 BCE. That is when the mighty Assyrian empire finally completed its conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, begun ten years earlier. The Assyrians were seasoned conquerors and they had a policy – transfer populations from one land to another. In this way, the land would continue to be worked, taxes would be paid, but the local population would have no loyalty to their new land and therefore would have no desire to revolt. The Assyrians sent away the ten tribes of Israel and brought in others in their place (those are the Samaritans who we have discussed many times).
The book of Kings (in the verse quoted above in Kiddushin) tells us where the tribes are taken but probably even in Biblical times, and certainly by the time of the Gemara, those locations were difficult to identify. The Gemara offers suggestions, most of these places are in Mesopotamia: near Nineveh the Assyrian capital (Halah), a tributary of the Euphrates (Habor), and other sites in the former Assyrian Empire. A fascinating archaeological discovery was made in a place called Tel Halaf in today’s northeastern Syria that is perhaps Gozan. A document mentioning some officials with Israelite names discusses a female captive named Dinah.
A Suggested Map of the Exile
Joelholdsworth, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Although many of the Israelites were exiled, it seems clear that not all of them were. The Bible in the book of Chronicles and in Jeremiah mentions Israelites coming to Jerusalem to the Temple and people from the tribes of Manassah and Ephraim are included among those Jews returning to Israel in Persian times (I Chronicles 9:3). Even the Assyrian texts, which recount the exile, list numbers that could not possibly have included the entire Israelite population. In addition we know that the city of Jerusalem expanded during those years and it seems that happened because exiles from the north fled to there.
The Broad Wall in Jerusalem
יעקב, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Of those who were actually exiled, what happened to them? They seem to have vanished without a trace, and indeed the likelihood is that most of them assimilated into the culture and religion of their new land, as did all exiled ancient peoples, with the notable exception of the Judeans. But romantic stories about these lost tribes surfaced from time to time. The most famous teller of such tales was a traveler named Eldad haDani (from the tribe of Dan) who appeared in Kairowan (today’s Tunisia) in the late 9th century CE. He told fantastic tales of his journeys that included cannibals and other adventures. However, the important part for the Jews was that he told of meeting the different tribes in various places. In the Caucasus he encountered Reuben, Shimon, Yissachar, Zevulun and Menashe. In Yemen he found Efraim and the second half of Menashe and in Ethiopia, known as Kush in Hebrew, he discovered the tribes of Asher, Gad, Naftali and Dan. Perhaps the most famous tale he told was of a magical river called the Sambatyon that rests on Shabbat. Secluded beyond this river is the tribe of Levi. They can never leave because the river is too wild during the week and on Shabbat, when it is calm, they will not cross.
The Sambatyon, or in ancient sources, the Sabbatyon, from the word Sabbath, is mentioned in Second Temple times by Josephus and the Roman writer Pliny. The rabbis in the Talmud also talk about it as a river that stops flowing on Shabbat (Sanhedrin 65b) and which holds the ten tribes behind it. This idea is repeated by Nahmanides (who post-dated Eldad by a few centuries) in his commentary to Devarim 32:26, where he identifies the river Gozan with the Sabbatyon.
Eldad’s tale took on a life of its own and was repeated by Jews for centuries. Some, like Abraham Ibn Ezra, were skeptical but others believed. In the 16th century, as the first evidence of a Jewish community in Ethiopia began to emerge, Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (Radvaz) quoted Eldad haDani and proclaimed that these are descendants of the tribe of Dan. Centuries later, with the large scale aliya of the Ethiopians in the 1980s and 90s, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef relied on the Radvaz and ruled that the Ethiopians are Jewish and do not have to undergo conversion, despite the many differences between normative Jewish law and Ethiopian Jewish law.
Other “lost tribes” have emerged throughout history, When Yemenites Jews first arrived in Jerusalem in the late 19th century, the Christian founders of the American Colony called them Gadites, believing that they were descended from the lost tribe of Gad. More recently, a large group have arrived from Manipur in India who call themselves the Bnei Menashe, the children of Menashe. They are not the Indian Jews that we have been familiar with for centuries, but rather a group that “discovered” their Jewish origins in the 1950s and have been committed to Jewish practice and aliyah to Israel. Organizations such as Amishav and Shavei Yisrael are involved in facilitating the aliyah of the Bnei Menashe and other groups that see themselves as lost Jews.
Of course, there have always been wilder claims than these about the lost tribes. American Indians, Japanese, Mormons and Britons are just some of groups who believe (or others believe about them) that they are descended from the original ten tribes. DNA testing among the African Lemba tribe has shown them to have a genetic marker that they share with Jewish kohanim. Not only Jewish ideas but also Jewish genes have spread far and wide.
With the incredible ingathering of the exiles to Israel in the 40s and 50s, many of these “tribes” have come home. Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben Zvi, would host Rosh Chodesh gatherings in the presidential home, each month featuring another group of far-flung Jews. He celebrated their traditions, songs, dress and especially the fact that they had returned at last.
וְלָקַחְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם וְקִבַּצְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִכׇּל־הָאֲרָצ֑וֹת וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֶל־אַדְמַתְכֶֽם׃
I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you back to your own land. (Ezekiel 36:24)
Government Press Office (Israel), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons