The Sambatyon River’s Tale – Searching The Footsteps Of The 10 Holy Tribes

Few people pause to wonder where the Sambatyon River might be located and why this would be important for us

Lots of things in history, geography, medicine, politics, economy and so on are hidden from mankind. This is by purpose, so people would feel disconnected from Hashem.

Over two and a half millennia ago, in 556 BCE, King Shalmanessar carried out the exile of the Ten Tribes, a chapter in Jewish history that continues to intrigue and mystify scholars and thinkers alike. Since that fateful time, the whereabouts and fate of these scattered Jews have been shrouded in mystery. Some are believed to have been cast across the enigmatic Sambatyon River, while others found refuge in Daphne of Antioch, and an even more curious tale suggests that some were veiled within a mysterious cloud (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:1).

The Sambatyon River is a key element in the quest to trace the exiled tribes. Its unique characteristic has intrigued generations of scholars and spiritual seekers. According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 65b), Rabbi Akiva was once challenged by Turnusrufus, who questioned the distinctiveness of Shabbos, asking why it is different from other days.

In response, Rabbi Akiva presented three proofs, among which the resting of the Sambatyon River on Shabbos was highlighted. The other two were the inability to communicate with the dead on Shabbos and the peculiar occurrence of Turnusrufus’ father’s grave ceasing to smoke during the day of rest.

Sambatyon River

However, in the face of these arguments, Turnusrufus remained skeptical, for he had never personally witnessed the Sambatyon River’s unique behavior. To add to the mystery, there were conflicting opinions on the precise location of this enigmatic river.

One of the early mentions of the Sambatyon River’s location comes from the writings of Josephus (Wars 7:5.1), who described how Titus, the Roman emperor, traversed the river on his return to Rome after conquering the land of Israel. Interestingly, Josephus’s account in the English edition tells of the Sambatyon River flowing on Shabbos and running dry during the week, in contrast to the teachings of Chazal (the sages). The Hebrew edition, however, correctly aligns with Chazal’s interpretation.

The Yalkut Shimoni (Shir Hashirim 985) further hints at the Sambatyon’s location, suggesting that it lies not far from the land of Israel, perhaps in the vicinity of Damascus.

The quest to discover the fate and whereabouts of the Ten Tribes continues, and the mystery of the Sambatyon River remains an integral part of this age-old search, inviting the curious to explore further and shed light on a fascinating and enduring enigma.

According to the Ramban, the enigmatic Sambatyon River may have a more distant location. The Ramban delves into the verse “Amarti af’eihem,” which translates to “I said I will scatter them” (Devarim 32:26). In his commentary, he suggests a possible connection to the exile of the Ten Tribes, who were dispersed to the Gozan River, often referred to by the sages as the Sambatyon.

The Gozan River is believed to be situated near Media, as historical records regarding King Shalmanessar’s exile of the Ten Tribes in 556 BCE indicate that these exiles were settled in Chalach, Chovoir, along the Gozan River, and in the towns of Media (II Melachim 18:11). This interpretation by the Ramban suggests that the Sambatyon River could be associated with regions further afield, deepening the mystery surrounding its exact location.

The Sons of Moshe beyond the Sambatyon River

Centuries later, during the ninth century, a mysterious traveler named Eldad Hadoni breathed fresh life into the mystery of the Sambatyon River. Claiming to hail from the lost tribes, Eldad Hadoni reported a location for the elusive river, situating it south of Ethiopia. This version of the Sambatyon’s whereabouts aligns with a passage from Yeshayahu (Isaiah 11:11) which mentions some of the Ten Tribes being exiled to Patros on the southern Nile and to Ethiopia.

Eldad Hadoni’s account added an intriguing layer to the mystery, as it suggested that not only the Ten Tribes were ensnared by the Sambatyon, but also the Bnei Moshe, the descendants of Moses. According to his narrative, the Bnei Moshe were exiled following the destruction of the First Temple, a tragic event that occurred due to the ruthless Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar. He recounted how the Bnei Moshe, in a poignant act of devotion, bit off their own fingers as they cried before the Almighty, mourning their inability to play the harp and sing the songs of the Holy Temple in an impure land.

As Eldad Hadoni shared, a miraculous event followed their heartfelt cries. A cloud descended upon them, lifting their tents, flocks, and cattle, carrying them away to a place called Chavilla, and depositing them near the Sambatyon River. This mystical river surrounded and protected them, rendering them inaccessible to others.

This tale received corroboration from Rav Tzemach Gaon, who endorsed the story of the Bnei Moshe’s exile beyond the Sambatyon. He noted that according to Chazal (the sages), Nebuchadnezzar had indeed exiled numerous Levites descended from Moses, who brought their harps with them. Upon reaching the rivers of Babylon, an event transpired precisely as recounted by Eldad Hadoni.

Intriguingly, the earliest source hinting at the exile of the Bnei Moshe beyond the Sambatyon can be traced back to the Targum Yonasan. This Aramaic translation of the Torah translates Exodus 34:10 in a manner that alludes to the Bnei Moshe. It describes how they would be captives by the rivers of Babylon and, from there, the Almighty would rescue them, placing them beyond the Sambatyon River.

The search for contact with the Bnei Moshe has not been a solitary endeavor, as several instances of such endeavors have been recorded. In 1899, Yosef ben Yaakov, a Jew who arrived in Jerusalem, claimed to be a member of the Bnei Moshe. This led to leading Jerusalem figures, including Rav Shmuel Salant, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, and Rav Akiva Yosef Shlesinger, signing a letter addressed to the Bnei Moshe.

They implored the mysterious group to reveal the way to the Ten Tribes residing beyond the Sambatyon, with the aspiration that it would play a role in bringing about redemption. Indeed, the Vilna Gaon had acknowledged 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.”

However, this endeavor bore no fruit, as the Turks apprehended the enigmatic Jew on espionage charges, leading to his execution in Damascus.

Perhaps the most distant report regarding the Sambatyon’s location comes from the adventurous Rav Moshe Yaffe. He embarked on a quest to find the lost Ten Tribes during his travels to Arabia and India, a journey undertaken on behalf of Jerusalem’s needy Jewish community.

In 1848, he corresponded with the famous geographer Yosef Schwartz, revealing his conviction that the Sambatyon was located in China. According to Rav Moshe Yaffe, he received compelling testimony attesting to the existence of the river in China, two months’ journey from Canton.

This river was described as a fascinating natural phenomenon: it would disgorge stones and sand throughout six days of the week but would rest, uniquely, on Shabbat. The Sambatyon, cloaked in an aura of holiness, was so revered that no one dared to cross it, even on Shabbat. Merchants approaching this sacred river would leave their goods on one side and return.

After Shabbat, they would discover their wares untouched, and they would receive their payment or the merchandise precisely as they had left it. This account shed an exciting light on the Sambatyon’s potential location in the remote expanses of China.

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Portable Portent 

In one of his letters dating back to 1888 (Kovetz Al Yad, vol. 4), the renowned Rambam expounds on the enigmatic Sambatyon River. He corroborates the astonishing properties attributed to the river, even when cut off from its source, remarking, “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.”

The Rambam acknowledges the river’s unique nature, stating, “It is true that this river flows with sand all six weekdays and on Shabbos it rests.” He provides a captivating account of sand moving ceaselessly in a container throughout the workweek, only to come to a complete rest on the sanctified day of Shabbat. The Rambam’s words offer a compelling perspective on the phenomenon, underlining that it has been witnessed by some individuals.

Rav Menashe ben Yisroel, a prominent figure who served as a rabbi in Holland and played a pivotal role in facilitating the return of Jews to England, strengthens the case with additional testimony (Mikveh Yisroel, page 39). He cites an anecdote recorded by the Levush, Rav Mordechai Yaffeh, in his work Yefei To’ar. This account reveals a man who possessed a glass container filled with sand purportedly originating from the Sambatyon River.

The sand within this container exhibited a striking pattern: it would swirl and whirl throughout the six weekdays, yet come Shabbat, it lay perfectly still. Rav Menashe ben Yisroel underscores the veracity of this narrative by sharing a story he heard from his father. In the city of Lisbon, Portugal, there lived an Ethiopian man who possessed a glass container containing this exceptional sand. Every Erev Shabbat, as the sacred day drew near, the Ethiopian would walk down Rue Nova, or Rechov Hachadash in Hebrew, a street inhabited by Marranos who had been coerced into adopting Christianity.

The Ethiopian would call out to them, display the glass container in his hand, and announce, “Close the shops, for the time has come to accept Shabbos.

Moreover, Rav Menashe ben Yisroel recounts another account he had learned from a reliable source. This account involves the esteemed R. Meir, a doctor who witnessed the Ethiopian with the glass container of sand standing outside a Muslim house of prayer in the town of Chalefa.

A local judge inquired about the peculiar object, confiscating the container from the Ethiopian, and expressed his disapproval. The judge admonished the Ethiopian, declaring, “You have acted improperly, for this supports the Sabbath day of the Jews.” These accounts resonate with the enduring mystery of the Sambatyon River and its mystical properties.

So, where is the Sambatyon River

In his work (page 41), Rav Menashe ben Yisroel addresses the perplexing question of why the Ten Tribes have remained so elusive throughout history. He notes that many individuals have wondered why we lack clear information about their whereabouts. However, Rav Menashe presents an intriguing perspective, suggesting that even regarding things known to us, we often remain unaware of their origins.

For instance, he cites the example of the sources of the four renowned rivers—the Nile, Ganges, Tigris, and Euphrates (or the Pishon, Gichon, Chidekel, and Peras)—of which we possess incomplete knowledge. Additionally, he asserts that many concealed regions exist within the lands of Kedar, in parts of America, and in the northernmost regions of the world, such as Florida and the kingdom of the Anian in the land of Peru. These concealed regions, beyond the high mountains, may conceal secrets, including the presence of hidden tribes.

While Rav Menashe’s explanation may have sufficed in his era, it raises new questions for the present day. In an age when human exploration and technological advancements have penetrated nearly every corner of the Earth, and even the most remote territories have been scrutinized by satellites, the mystery of the Ten Tribes and the elusive Sambatyon River persists. This leads to the natural inquiry of whether our current knowledge and tools should not have unveiled their whereabouts.

Dreamy Island

An anecdote from the childhood of Rav Chaim Kanievski sheds light on this enduring enigma. When he once posed this question to the Chazon Ish, a revered sage, the Chazon Ish responded with profound insight. He stated, “If Hashem desires the Sambatyon River to remain concealed and hidden, all the efforts, regardless of their sophistication, to discover it will be in vain.”

This perspective underscores the idea that some things remain concealed due to Hashem’s will, emphasizing the notion of hester panim, the hidden countenance of God, which characterizes our lengthy exile.

Throughout history, the Ten Tribes have remained a mystery, defying easy discovery, and the Sambatyon River, with its unique traits, has perpetually eluded those who seek it. Whether shrouded in the secrets of the past or guided by a higher plan, the search for these enigmatic elements continues to captivate the imagination.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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