Sambatyon River

Two and a half millennia ago, King  Shalmanessar exiled the last of the Ten  Tribes; the date was 556 BCE. Ever  since, people have been wondering what  became of these myriads of Jews scattered  like chaff to the wind, some over  the Sambatyon River, some to Daphne  of Antochia, while some were hidden in  a cloud (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1).  Easiest to track down should be the  Sambatyon River due to a mysterious  trait that makes it unique. The Gemora  (Sanhedrin 65b) tells us that when Turnusrufus  challenged R. Akiva, “Why is  this day [Shabbos] different than other  days?” Rabbi Akiva answered that there  are three proofs that Shabbos is a day  of rest. First, the Sambatyon River that  rests on Shabbos, second, the fact that  one cannot call up the dead on Shabbos,  and third, that the grave of Turnusrufus’  wicked father smoked the whole week  but ceased to smoke on Shabbos.

In the medrash, Turnusrufus rejects  Rabbi Akiva’s proof of the Sambatyon  since he never viewed it personally, and  indeed, even its location is subject to a  variety of opinions.

Perhaps first to mention its location  is Josephus (Wars 7:5.1) who describes  how Titus passed the Sambatyon on his  victorious trip to Rome after conquering  Eretz Yisroel. (Strangely, the English  edition of this episode has the Sambatyon  River running on Shabbos and  dry during the week contrary to Chazal;  only the Hebrew edition gets it right):

“Titus Caesar remained some time at  Berytus (Beirut) and moved from there  and gave magnificent shows in all the  cities of Syria through which he went,  and exhibited the captive Jews as proof  of the destruction of that nation. On his  march, he saw a river of such a nature  as deserves to be recorded in history. It  runs between Arcaea (Arka, upper Syria),  which is part of Agrippa’s kingdom,  and Rapharaea (Rafaniyeh in north Lebanon)  and has something very powerful  and very strange about it. For when it  runs, its current is strong and has plenty  of water, after which its springs fail for  six days together and leave its channel  dry, as anyone may see… Therefore,  they call it the Sabbatic river after the  holy Shabbos of the Jews.”

The Yalkut Shimoni (Shir Hashirim  985) also intimates that the Sambatyon  is not far from Eretz Yisroel in the vicinity  of Damascus.

According to the Ramban, the Sambatyon  lies further a field. Commenting  on the verse, Amarti af’eihem, I said I  will scatter them (Devorim 32:26), the  Ramban writes: “This hints at the exile  of the Ten Tribes who were exiled to  the Gozan River, which the sages call  Sambatyon.” The Gozan River seems  to be in the vicinity of Modai, because  concerning Shalmanessar’s exile of the  remaining Ten Tribes in 556 BCE, the  verse says: “And the king of Assyria exiled  Yisroel to Assyria and settled them  in Chalach and Chovoir, on the Gozan  River, and in the towns of Modai” (II  Melochim 18:11)

The Sons of Moshe 
Centuries later, during the ninth century,  the Sambatyon was given a brand  new location by the mysterious Eldad  Hadoni who claimed to come from the  lost tribes and reported the Sambatyon  as lying somewhere south of Ethiopia.  In fact, this accords with a verse in Yeshayahu  (11:11) mentioning some of the  Ten Tribes being exiled to Patros on the  southern Nile and to Ethiopia.

According to Eldad Hadoni, the Sambatyon  cut off not only the Ten Tribes  but also Bnei Moshe, descendants of  Moshe Rabeinu who were exiled since  the fi rst Churban. As the Jews of Kairwan  in modern day Tunisia reported to  Rav Tzemach Gaon of Bavel:

“[Eldad Hadoni] also told us that when  the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed and  Yisroel went to Bavel, the Kasdim stood  before the Bnei Moshe and said to them,  Sing to us the song of Tziyon. The Bnei  Moshe stood up and burst out crying before  the Holy One and bit off their fi ngers  with their teeth and said, The fi ngers  that we beat with [to music] in the Bais  Hamikdosh, how can we beat with them  in an impure land? A cloud came, lifted  them with their tents and their fl ocks  and cattle and took them to Chavilla and  lowered them there at night. At sunrise,  the cloud left and the Holy One drew before  them a river named Sambatyon and  locked them in so that no one can reach  them.”

Rav Tzemach Gaon replied that the  story of the Bnei Moshe has a solid basis:  “Regarding that the descendants of  Moshe are with them and that the Sambatyon  surrounds them, he spoke the  truth. For Chazal say in a medrash that  Nevuchadnetzar exiled sixty myriad  Levites descended from Moshe, and  when they and their harps came to the  rivers of Bavel it happened to them as R.  Eldad told you.”

Indeed, the earliest source mentioning  Bnei Moshe’s exile beyond the Sambatyon  is the Targum Yonasan to the verse  (Shemos 34:10), And he said, Behold, I  am making a covenant. Before all your  nation I will do wonders, etc. Targum  Yonasan translates part of this verse as  follows: “However, from you [Moshe]  will descend righteous multitudes. Before  all your nation I will do wonders for  them when they are captives at the rivers  of Bavel. I will take them from there and  settle them over the Sambatyon River.”

In his sefer Kol Mevaser, the mekubal,  Rav Shimon Horowitz of Yerushalayim  cites many instances of Jews trying to  make contact with the Bnei Moshe, such  as when the Jew Yosef ben Yaakov arrived  in Yerushalayim in 1899 and made  a convincing claim that he was a member  of the Bnei Moshe. This led leading  Yerushalayim Jews including Rav Shmuel  Salant, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld,  and Rav Akiva Yosef Shlesinger, to  sign a letter to the Bnei Moshe pleading  with them to reveal the way to the Ten  Tribes that lie beyond the Sambatyon in  the hope that this would lead to the redemption.  For does not the Vilna Gaon  write that “the Bnei Moshe who live  beyond the Sambatyon River are great  tzaddikim and perushim, and they are the  moshi’im who will ascend Har Tziyon”?

Nothing came of their letter; the  Turks arrested the mysterious Jew on  charges of espionage and executed him  in Damascus.

The most far flung report of all  originates with Rav Moshe Yaffe who  searched for the lost Ten Tribes while  traveling to Arabia and India on behalf  of Yerushalayim’s needy Jews. The following  year, in 1848, he wrote the famous  geographer, Yosef Schwartz that  he was convinced that the Sambatyon  was in China.

“I heard clear testimony that the Sambatyon  is in China,” he wrote. “The  wealthy Jewish merchant Sasson from  Bombay, sent his son, Abdalla, to Canton  in those days for his business. His  servant told him that his master heard  from his translator, that it is clear as sunlight  that two months journey from Canton  there is a river that throws up stones  and sand for six days of the week and  rests on Shabbos. However, no one dares  to cross this holy river even on Shabbos,  and merchants bringing goods to that  land leave their wares by one side of the  river and return where they came from,  and after Shabbos they return and fi nd  the pay for their wares, or their wares as  they left them.” 

Portable Portent 
In one of his letters (Kovetz Al Yad,  vol. 4, 1888), the Rambam writes that  the Sambatyon displays its unique properties  even when cut off from its source:  “Regarding what you asked about  the Tribes, you should know that it is  true and we wait for their coming, for  they are hidden beyond the mountains  of darkness, and the Gozan River and  the Sambatyon River. It is true that this river flows with sand all six weekdays  and on Shabbos it rests. In the days of  the righteous elder, the tzaddik and maggid,  my father z”l, people brought a container  with sand that moved all the six  weekdays and rested on Shabbos. These  things are true, for they are sometimes  seen by individuals.”

Rav Menashe ben Yisroel, who served  as rav in Holland and helped the Jews  return to England, brings more testimony  to this phenomenon (Mikveh Yisroel  page 39):

“Rav Mordechai Yaffeh (the Levush)  writes in his sefer, Yefei To’ar… that  a certain person had a glass container  full of the earth from the Sambatyon  River. During the six weekdays the sand  stormed inside the glass and on Shabbos  it rested. I too would like to testify  concerning this something… my father  related a number of times. In the city of  Lisbon in Portugal, there was an Ethiopian  who had a glass container full of this  sand. Every erev Shabbos when it was  close to Shabbos he went to the street  called Rue Nova, or Rechov Hachadash  in Hebrew, for there lived Marranos who  had been forced to accept Christianity.  The Ethiopian would call out to them,  show them the glass container in his  hand and say, ‘Close the shops, for the  time has come to accept Shabbos.’

“I also heard of this matter from a reliable  person, that the prominent R. Meir  the doctor saw the Ethiopian with the  glass container of sand we mentioned  standing in front of a Muslim house of  prayer in the town of Chalefa. A judge  passed and asked about it, took the container,  and quarreled with the Ethiopian  and censured him, saying, ‘You have  acted improperly, for this supports the  Sabbath day of the Jews.” 

Where is it? 
Later in his sefer (page 41), Rav  Menashe ben Yisroel asks how the Ten  Tribes remain so elusive:  “Many people ask that if it is true that  the Ten Tribes exist in the world, why  do we know nothing clear about them?  This is no difficulty, for we see that  even concerning things known to us,  we do not know where they come from,  such as the source of the four rivers,  the Nile, Ganges, Tigris, and Euphrates  (i.e. the Pishon, Gichon, Chidekel, and  Peras). In addition, there are many hidden  countries in the lands of Kedar and  in part of America, and all the places in  the north of the world, such as Florida,  the kingdom of the Anian in the land of  Peru… and other western countries that  are larger than all the parts of the world  revealed to us. Besides, it may be that  even in the countries known to us some  of the hidden tribes live beyond the high  mountains…”

Rav Menashe’s answer is adequate  for his times, but what about nowadays  when people have traveled to almost  every corner of the earth and wherever  man has not set foot has been scrutinized  by satellite?

As a child, Rav Chaim Kanievski  once asked the Chazon Ish this question  and he replied, “If Hashem wants the  Sambatyon River to be hidden and unrevealed,  all the searching for it, no matter  how sophisticated, will not help.”

It’s all part of the hester ponim of our  long exile.

(Partial source: Article by Rav B. Genut,  Nahar Hasambatyon zo’ek, Zechor  es Yom Hashabbos).


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