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Beit Midrash Jewish Laws and Thoughts Eretz Agada

Chapter 4

The Ten Tribes Beyond the Sambatyon

The road from Babylon to the Land of Israel passes through Syria, and many of the returning exiles got stuck there, beyond the Sambatyon River. Though largely unobservant, they were protected from assimilation by the observance of the Sabbath.
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1. The Damascus Exile
Eretz Agada (5)
Rabbi Mordechai Hochman
3 - The Goats Brought Bears on their Horns
4 - The Ten Tribes Beyond the Sambatyon
5 - Josephus' Jewish Sambatyon
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2. The Sambatyon Is the Sabbath
3. The Road from Babylon
4. Emissaries Spreading the Faith

Isaiah the Prophet prophesies about the future redemption (49:8-9):

"Thus says the Lord, In an acceptable time have I heard you, and in a day of salvation have I helped you; and I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the people, to restore the land, and to assign desolate inheritances to their owners. That you may say to the prisoners, Go forth; to those who are in darkness, Show yourselves. They will feed in the ways, and their pastures will be in all high places"

This prophecy is clarified in the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Yeshayahu 269):

"What is meant by the words 'That you may say to the prisoners, Go forth'? Three exiles were experienced by Israel: one was exiled to the Sambatyon River; one was exiled beyond the Sambatyon River - and it is the same distance from the Land of Israel to the Sambatyon as it is from the Sambatyon to this place; and one was exiled to Antioch and was absorbed there."

This Midrash and others like it teach us that the Ten Tribes are imprisoned beyond the Sambatyon, and they are waiting for the redemption, when they will be freed from their imprisonment and reunited with us. These Midrashic sources excited the hearts of many throughout the generations, and from time to time travelers would set out in search of the Ten Lost Tribes.

However, these sources appear to contradict the words of the Talmud in tractate Megillah (14b), which states that Jeremiah the Prophet brought back the Ten Tribes and they were reunited with us, and Josiah son of Amon ultimately ruled over both Judah and them. Even the Bible mentions the Ten Tribes as having returned to dwell in the Land of Israel, and the Tosafists (Gitin 36) write that it is obvious that all of the Ten Tribes returned. They even say that one who does not know this must "go back to school."

The Tosafists, however, write that Jeremiah brought back only a small portion of the members of the Ten Tribes, but most of the members of the Ten Tribes remained in their exile. Yet, if the Midrash, when discussing the Ten Tribes imprisoned beyond the Sambatyon, is referring to those who did not return with Jeremiah, it is not clear why they remained imprisoned there while their friends succeeded in crossing over the Sambatyon with Jeremiah.

In order to clarify this question we must seek out the location of the Sambatyon.

The Damascus Exile
Amos the Prophet (5:27) prophesies about the exile of the Ten Tribes: "And I will cause you to go into exile beyond Damascus, says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts."

Damascus is mentioned prior to this in Amos' prophecies of exile, but with a different pronunciation (3:12): "Thus says the Lord; As the shepherd rescues out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear; so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued with the corner of a bed, and the Demeshek (corner) of a couch."

The sages explain that the Demeshek mentioned here is Damascus. In the words of Radak: "Targum Yonatan translates Demeshek as Damascus . . . and we find the same in the book Seder Olam: R' Nahurai says in the name of R' Yehoshua, 'As the shepherd rescues . . . the corner of a bed' - this refers to a small portion of the Ten Tribes that clung to Hezekiah king of Judah and were saved with them. The words 'the corner of a bed' teaches us that only an eighth of them were saved. And where is the rest of the 'bed'? In Damascus! As it is written, 'And I will cause you to go into exile beyond Damascus.' "

In ancient times, beds were made of a frame of four wooden poles, upon which leather curtains or latticed ropes were spread. The frame itself was attached to four wooden poles that were the legs of the bed, so that there were a total of eight wooden poles on the bed.

Amos the Prophet prophesies that only one leg of the bed will survive, and the sages explain that this refers to an eighth of the population of the Ten Tribes, the portion which was to cling to Hezekiah's kingdom. This portion was to be exiled together with the kingdom of Judah to Babylon and would return with them to the Land of Israel, and in this manner they would be saved. However, most of the population of the Ten Tribes (most of the wooden poles on the bed) would not be saved and would end up in Damascus and its surroundings.

We find support for the idea that the Ten Tribes that were exiled to the Sambatyon ended up in Damascus and its surroundings in the words of the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shir HaShirim 985). There, the words, "beyond Damascus" parallel the words "beyond the Sambatyon River."

According to these Midrashic sources, the exile of the Ten Tribes splintered into three different groups. One group found its way to Damascus, which is the Sambatyon itself. The second group ended up not far from Damascus - "and it is the same distance from the Land of Israel to the Sambatyon as it is from the Sambatyon to this place." And the third group ended up in "Rechiva shel Rivlata" which the sages identify with Antioch in northern Syria (today Turkey).

The Sambatyon Is the Sabbath
In other Midrashic sources we find that the Sambatyon is a miraculous river in which during the six week days only dirt and rocks flow, and on the Sabbath its rests. We must clarify why it is we are unaware of any such river in Damascus, Syria. An allusion to a possible answer can be found in the words of R' Tzemach Gaon.

The personality of Eldad HaDani is a familiar one in Jewish history. He visited various Jewish communities in the ninth century CE and reported finding members of the tribe of Dan exiled in Africa. He tells enthralling stories of the Ten Tribes, describing them as remarkable warriors, and relates tales of the descendants of Moses who are imprisoned beyond the Sambatyon. The Jews of Kairouan requested R' Tzemach Gaon's opinion of these stories, and this is his reply (Otzar HaMidrashim [Eisenstein], Eldad HaDani, p. 21):

"[When he says] that the descendants of Moses are with them and the Sambatyon River encircles them, he tells the truth, for the sages of the Midrash teach that Nebuchadnezzar exiled 600,000 Jews and when they reached the rivers of Babylon, with their harps, they experienced what R' Eldad has related to you. And before our forefathers came to the land of Canaan they engaged in wars and forgot the teachings which they had received from the mouth of Joshua. It is even written of Joshua, may he rest in peace, that he became uncertain about some matters after the death of Moses. And of all the tribes throughout the land, those of Judah and Benjamin clung to the Torah more than the rest."

When R' Tzemach Gaon says that the descendants of Moses engaged in wars before entering the Land of Israel, he is not referring to Gershom and Eliezer, the sons of Moses, or their offspring, for they were members of the tribe of Levi, which did not participate in wars. Rather, he intends to hint that all of the Israelites who were in the army - they were 600,00 - are considered the (spiritual) sons of Moses. They ought to be versed in the Torah, but because they engaged in warfare they forgot what they had learned.

And when he says "and of all the tribes throughout the lands, those of Judah and Benjamin clung to the Torah more than the rest" he is insinuating that the Midrash about the Ten Tribes beyond the Sambatyon is a parable about those who chose a life of work rather than clinging to the Torah. Later, he says that because of the hardships that Eldad HaDani experienced, inaccuracies arose in his accounts, and one who is wise enough can deduce that due to these hardships he transformed the parables into a living reality.

Israel guarded the Sabbath (the Sambatyon), and the Sabbath guarded them. The Jewish people did not assimilate, "and the Sambatyon River encircles them." During the week days the Jewish people are busy with mundane matters, and the bustle and noise of these days is similar to the din of "rolling stones." Only with the onset of the Sabbath, when the Jewish people rest from their labor, does a spiritual cloud of sanctity descend upon them. The respite and joy and Torah study on Sabbath returns the souls to those who do not labor in Torah, and the Sambatyon "encircles them" and serves to prevent them from assimilating amongst the nations.

The Road from Babylon
About one eighth of the Ten Tribes' population reunited with the kingdom of Judah. They were exiled with them to Babylon and even returned with them to the Land of Israel. When the sages explain that " 'the corner of a bed' refers to a small portion of the Ten Tribes that clung to Hezekiah king of Judah and were saved with them" they are referring to this group.

The Prophets Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, like other sages, were part of the group of Jews that returned to the Land of Israel. In this manner, a Torah center arose in the Land of Israel to which the returnees - members of the tribe of Judah and members of the Ten Tribes who clung to them - were attached. And though most of the Jews who were exiled to Babylon did not return to the Land of Israel, there were also Torah centers in Babylon to which the Jews who remained there were attached (as explained in Gittin 88).

However, the road between Babylon and the Land of Israel passed through Syria, and many Jews who left the Babylonian exile did not reach the Land of Israel but remained "stuck" in Syria. There in Syria, a large Jewish community evolved which was not attached to the Torah. The sages refer to the Syrian exile as "the Ten Tribes" because as far back as the era of the Prophets the Ten Tribes had a reputation of having detached themselves from the Torah (see Joshua 12:1). But the sages note that though the Syrian exiles forgot the Torah they had learned, they did not assimilate into the local population, and what preserved them as an independent unit was their observance of the Sabbath, which is itself "the Sambatyon."

In contrast to the Midrashic sources that refer to these exiles as "the Ten Tribes" - an appropriate title for those who separate themselves from the Torah - there are other Midrashic sources that view them in a positive light. These sources consider them righteous people with an inner inclination to Torah who have sacrificed this inclination for the good of the Jewish people. Targum Yonatan writes (Exodus 34:10):

"Behold, I am entering a covenant that I will not replace this nation with another. Rather, from them will come a population of righteous people. Before your entire nation will I perform wonders for them when they are taken captive by the rivers of Babylon, and I will bring them up out of there and place them beyond the Sambatyon River."

Targum Yonatan relates that the Almighty will bring from Moses a "population of righteous people" and this will be revealed when the Almighty brings them up out of the Babylonian exile. These people will settle beyond the Sambatyon River. These exiles, who are "stuck" in Syria and whose Judaism is expressed through the observance of the Sabbath, are seen by Targum Yonatan as "sons of Moses," i.e., as Levites whose inner inclination is attached to Torah study. However, before entering the Land of Israel, they forewent this inclination and set out to spread the light of Jewish faith in the world. Therefore, he sees in them "a population of righteous people."

In order to spread the pure faith in one God amongst the non-Jews, it is necessary for some Jews to live outside of the Land of Israel, amongst the non-Jews, and to mix with them on a daily basis. And though the Syrian exiles do not labor in Torah, and they have forgotten what they learned, and their Judaism is built essentially around the observance of Sabbath, they are the "soldiers" of the Jewish people in the dissemination of the faith in one God.

Emissaries Spreading the Faith
Perhaps this provides us with another explanation regarding the mention of Syrian cities in Zacharia's prophecy (9:1): "The burden of the word of the Lord in the land of Hadrach, and Damascus shall be his resting place; when the eyes of man, as of all the tribes of Israel, shall be toward the Lord."

On this verse, Ibn Ezra comments, "This prophecy relates to the Second Temple, and the meaning of 'when the eyes of man . . . shall be toward the Lord' is that many of the people of Damascus will return to serve God and accept the authority of the Jews in Jerusalem - Judah, Benjamin and [the few] who returned from Assyria."

Zechariah the Prophet reveals in his prophecy that the Torah center which has been established in the Land of Israel, comprised of the tribes of Judah and a small number of members of the other tribes, is necessary and important. But the Jewish people are in need of the rest of "the Ten Tribes," as well as the regular foot soldiers who spread the light of Judaism in the world. These people, who bring knowledge of the Creator's Sabbath rest to the cities of Syria ("in the land of Hadrach, and Damascus shall be his resting place") are part of the all-encompassing picture of the Jewish people. This complete picture brings satisfaction to God, for He wants all people on earth to recognize Him ("when the eyes of man . . . shall be toward the Lord").

The Syrian exile was the Jewish people's first and largest Diaspora and it constitutes a symbol for all of the other exiles. When the sages take a positive view of the "Ten Tribes" in Syria and consider them emissaries spreading the pure faith in one God, they are in effect taking a positive view of the exiles in other locations and other generations. Though the people of these exiles do not labor in Torah and their Judaism amounts to the observance of Sabbath alone, they act as emissaries spreading the name of God in the world. However, viewing things in a positive light does not mean waiving the truth. This becomes clear from the words of Yalkut Shimoni (Shir HaShirim 985):

" 'And as a dove out of the land of Assyria' (Hosea 11:11) - this refers to the Ten Tribes who were exiled beyond the Sambatyon. In the future, the exiles of Judah and Benjamin will go to them and bring them back, in order that they be able to merit together the days of the Messiah and the World to Come, as it is written, 'In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance to your fathers' (Jeremiah 3:18)."

The Midrash teaches us that in order to merit the days of the Messiah, the entire Jewish people must dwell in their land and be versed in Torah. "The Ten Tribes" - that portion of the Jewish people immersed in its business in the exile, in the "land of the north" - acts as a channel for spreading God's name in the world. However, this not the ideal situation. They are, in fact, "asurim," (this word means "imprisoned," but it can also mean "forbidden") in the exile. Therefore, emissaries set out from the Torah center of Judah and Binyamin to teach these people Torah and bring them to the Land of Israel. These emissaries are soldiers of the Messiah who will release the "Ten Tribes" from their bondage.
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Some of the translated biblical verses and Midrashic sources in the above article were taken from, or based upon, Davka's Soncino Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).
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