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Beit Midrash Jewish Laws and Thoughts Eretz Agada

Chapter 5

Josephus' Jewish Sambatyon

Josephus hints to his people that even during the period in which non-Jews succeeded in forcing the Jews of Syria to work on the Sabbath, thus concealing the physical Sabbath River, they did not succeed in concealing the spiritual Sabbath River.
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1. Hints in the Book
Eretz Agada (5)
Rabbi Mordechai Hochman
4 - The Ten Tribes Beyond the Sambatyon
5 - Josephus' Jewish Sambatyon
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2. A River That Flows Only on the Sabbath
3. The Joy of the Captives

4. In the Days of the Holocaust
5. An Extra Chapter
6. Prayer of Revenge

7. Through Roman Eyes

In the previous article – "The Ten Tribes Beyond the Sambatyon" – we learned that the road from Babylon to the Land of Israel passes through Syria, and many of the exiles who left Babylon got stuck there, forming a large Jewish community that did not cling to the Torah.

The sages refer to this exile as the "Exile of the Ten Tribes" because, in the era of the Prophets, the Ten Tribes had a reputation of having separated themselves from Torah study. The sages described them as being "imprisoned beyond the Sambatyon River" in order to insinuate that the thing which preserved them as an independent community and protected them from assimilation was the observance of the Sabbath, which is represented by the Sambatyon River. The rest and joy of the Sabbath revived all layers of the Jewish people and preserved their national life.

Hints in the Book
The Vilna Gaon says that in order to properly understand the words of the sages one must study the works of Yosef bar Mattathyahu, Flavius Josephus. In his Jewish Antiquities (16:2:3–5), Josephus relates that the Jews in exile under Roman rule were recognized by the Romans as having special privileges that allowed them to observe the Sabbath.

Josephus describes the Syrian diaspora also in The Jewish War, and there, in chapters three and five of book seven, he calls it the largest exile of the Jewish people. He adds that during the Great Revolt against the Romans, one of the Jews of Antioch, Syria, who abandoned his religion, incited the Greek population to force all of the Jews to violate the Sabbath: "Sabbath rest was dissolved not only at Antioch, for, having taken its rise there, the evil spread to other cities as well for some small time" (7:3:3).

However, Josephus hints that the Sambatyon, the human-like river of the Jewish diaspora in Syria, a diaspora that would work during the six weekdays and rest on Sabbath, did not disappear during this difficult period. Rather, it took on a different form. This is what he relates (The Jewish War 7:5:1):

"Now Titus Caesar stayed for some time at Berytus, as we told you before. He then moved on and exhibited magnificent shows in all those cities of Syria through which he went, and made use of the captive Jews as public instances of the destruction of that nation [and as a result many commited suicide]. Then, as he went along, he saw a river of such a nature as deserves to be recorded in history; it runs midway between Arcea, belonging to Agrippa's kingdom, and Raphanea. There is something very peculiar about it: When it runs, its current is strong and it has plenty of water, but then its springs cease for six consecutive days and leave its channel dry, as any one may see. After this, it runs on the seventh day as it did before, as though it had undergone no change at all. Research has also shown that it keeps this order perpetually and exactly. They thus call it the Sabbatic River, that name being taken from the sacred seventh day among the Jews."

A River That Flows Only on the Sabbath
Josephus describes the Sambatyon in a manner opposite from everybody else. The sages say that the Sambatyon is active during the six week days and rests on the Sabbath, but Josephus says that, to the contrary, the Sambatyon is dry during the week; it is on the seventh day that water flows in it. However, there is only a contradiction if we view the Sambatyon River the way we view any other river. Because, though, the Sambatyon is an allegory, there is no contradiction; what we have are two allegories that compliment each other.

The sages generally speak about the Sambatyon as a parable to work, human labor, which "flows" during the six week days and rests on the Sabbath. However, it also represents the "river" of joy and delight that flows on the Sabbath. This is how it is described by Rabbenu Bachya (on Exodus 20:8):


" 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,' for all things thirst for their source to which they will return in the future. And the river that irrigates the garden is the foundation of the Sabbath and its essence, and this is [expressed by] the word 'oneg' (pleasure) [which forms the Hebrew acrostic of the words] 'eden,' 'nahar,' and 'gan' – paradise, river, and garden."

When Josephus tells us about the river that flows only on the Sabbath, he is referring to the spiritual river, the "living waters" that flow only on the day of rest and run dry during the six weekdays. Josephus mentions this important principle elsewhere, in a speech by a Syrian Jew, Nicolaus of Damascus (Jewish Antiquities 16:2:4):

"And the seventh day we set apart from labor; it is dedicated to the learning of our customs and laws."

The Joy of the Captives
Josephus seeks to reveal to us that though Titus tortured the captives and caused many of them to commit suicide before the Syrian masses, he was unable to subdue their spirits. Titus Caesar's "death march" made its way down the roads of Syria, but the difference between the weekdays and the Sabbaths was visible in the captives, and on the Sabbath their faces shone with joy, and they would sing and be happy.

When Josephus writes that "research has also shown that it keeps this order perpetually and exactly. They thus call it the Sabbath River," he causes the reader to become astonished, for even in his own time no researcher ever documented such a river in Syria.

One who is not accustomed to the logic of the Midrash is likely to assume that Josephus is relating an imaginary story here in order to enrich his book with matters that will attract readers. However, he who is versed in the ways of the Midrash will understand that Josephus is really referring to the Jewish people, who are like a Sabbath River.

Josephus tells the members of his people that even during the period in which the non-Jews succeeded in forcing the Jews of Syria to work on the Sabbath and concealed the physical Sambatyon they did not succeed in concealing the spiritual Sambatyon. It was the Jewish captives in Titus' "March of Death" who continued to rejoice in public on the Sabbath and to differentiate this day from other days of the week.

In the Days of the Holocaust
Continuations of the Sabbath River can be found throughout all generations and also in the period of the Holocaust. To illustrate this, let us bring just one of many stories:

The Rebbe of Dombrov, Rabbi Chaim Yechiel Rubin, together with about twenty other Jews, were brought to a cemetery on a Friday morning. The Nazis kept them there for the entire day and forced them to dig a mass grave with their own hands. Before evening, the rabbi asked one of the Jewish gravediggers to sneak away to the city and bring him two challah loaves. The rebbe asked everybody to pray Kabbalat Shabbat for the last time, as heartedly and fervently as possible. And so, in the same grave they had dug they now received the Sabbath Queen.
After praying, the rebbe wished the Jews "Shabbat Shalom" and immediately began singing "Shalom Aleichem." He recited Kiddush over the two challah loaves and began giving a sermon about the twenty-two letters of the Torah. He became filled with joy and began singing. The other Jews were also swept up in his joy and they too began dancing and singing in the grave. Then the Nazi commander gave the order to fire, and the pure, holy souls of these Jews left them as they danced.

The Warsaw Ghetto archives, which were meant to preserve for coming generations the remembrance of the Jews of the ghetto, were given the name "Oneg Shabbat" (Sabbath pleasure). This is no coincidence. The spirit of the Jews of the ghetto who chose this name in order to preserve their memory unites with the spirit of Josephus who chose the story "The Sabbath River" in order to preserve the memory of the captive Jews.

And this same spirit unites with the words of the sages: "All things thirst for their source to which they will return in the future. And the river that irrigates the garden is the foundation of the Sabbath and its essence, and this is [expressed by] the word 'oneg' (pleasure) [which forms the Hebrew acrostic of the words] 'eden,' 'nahar,' and 'gan' – paradise, river, and garden."

An Extra Chapter
Between the chapter that relates how the Jews of Syria were forced to desecrate the Sabbath, and the chapter that tells about the Sabbath River, Josephus inserts a chapter dedicated entirely to flattering Titus and his brother, Domitian. He concludes the chapter with an account of the battles waged by order of Vespasian, the father of Titus, in the vicinity of the Danube River. The purpose of this chapter is to obscure the path of the author.

It must be remembered that Josephus wrote his book in Rome, as a guest of Vespasian and Titus, the two angels of destruction who laid waste to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple and wiped out a huge portion of the Jewish people. In order to relate to his fellow Jews the inability of the Syrian masses and of Titus to subjugate the Jewish Sambatyon, he misled Titus and his family. He did this by inserting an extra chapter full of flatteries and not at all related to the course of events. In this chapter he planted fictitious stories about the bravery of Domitian, Titus’ brother, who was known to love flattery, and these stories were meant to cover up the story of the Sambatyon.

Titus really saw no such miraculous river, but Josephus was certain that Titus would be blinded by what he had read in the preceding chapter and would think that Josephus did not want to discriminate against him: Just as he invented stories of heroism about his brother and father, so did he arrange for him, Titus, a story about a miraculous river.

Prayer of Revenge
Josephus emphasizes the fact that Titus saw this miraculous river "as he went along." This emphasis sends us to the words of King David (Psalms 110:6, 7): "He will judge among the nations; He fills it with dead bodies, He crushes the head over a wide land. He will drink of the brook along the way; therefore will he lift up the head." This verse was chosen to close the prayer "Av HaRachamim" recited by Ashkenazi Jews in memory of those holy communities that sacrificed themselves in sanctification of God’s name. Josephus reveals his confidence that the Jewish people, who drink from the "brook along on the way" (the Sabbath) will yet lift up its head and merit seeing Titus punished for his acts.

One must remember that Josephus himself was a Jewish captive who was forced to buy his life by securing the position of Titus' historian. However, he did not "change his skin," and in his story about the Sambatyon River he both documents for his fellow Jews the bravery of the captives and entwines in this account a prayer for revenge.

Titus, of whom the author was a guest at the time he wrote his books, and the Greek scribes who copied his books, acted as book-bearing donkeys for him in a most literal sense. He himself says so at the close of Jewish Antiquities (Book 20:11:2):

"Our nation does not encourage those that learn the languages of many nations... But to one who is fully acquainted with our laws and is able to interpret their meaning do they give the testimony of being a wise man."

Through Roman Eyes
The Roman poet Ovidius writes that it is well known that in the land of Israel the Sabbath is a difficult day for conducting business. In Roman eyes, the marketplace was "the river of life," and the fact that it would close on the Sabbath was so well known that some of the Romans would say, metaphorically, that in the land of Israel the river dries up every Sabbath.

Some of the Romans understood this expression literally, and Plinius (Pliny the Elder), who was an officer in the Roman navy in Titus’ time, writes in his Encyclopedia: "In Judah, there is a river that dries up every Sabbath." The sages of Israel also gave importance to the life of the marketplace (see Yoma 71a), yet they gave greater importance to the true life, the life of the river that flows in the Garden of Eden on the Sabbath. For them, the river of the marketplace is like a river in which only dirt and rocks flow.

Josephus writes, "Research has also shown that it keeps this order perpetually and exactly." About two thousand years have passed since these words were written. During this period, the Jewish people have been drinking with faith from "the brook along the way," and the rest and joy of the Sabbath has protected them from assimilation. Indeed, it is this Sambatyon, this Sabbath River, that has made it possible for the Jewish people to finally return to and rule in their ancestral homeland.
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I would like to extend my warm thanks to Rabbi Yaakov Shemaria at Shemaria Judaica Books for helping me obtain works necessary for the preparation of the above article.


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