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.”
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).