The following article appears as an introduction in Beyond the Sambatyon: the Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes, published by MAXIMA Multimedia, publisher of this magazine. This book includes a marvelous collections of letters and travel writings that tell of the incredible quest of adventures, travelers and scholars for the mythical Sambatyon River (and the Lost Tribes who live beyond it). The CD-ROM accompanying the book includes a multimedia presentation of an exhibition on the Ten Lost Tribes, mounted at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, Tel Aviv, in 1991. The product may be purchased from the editor.

Historical reality is frequently the mother of myths and, like good offspring, myths carry on the process of creating history. We first encounter the mighty Sabbath river, the Sambatyon (referred to alternately as Sanbatyon and Sabatyon), in rabbinic literature. In numerous passages we read of a river unnavigable on weekdays when it flowed with strong currents, carrying along stones with tremendous force; on the Sabbath, however, it rested from its fury and lay tranquil.

In Jewish thought, the Sabbath is associated with the exodus from Egypt, the prototype of exile and redemption. It was natural, then, that the Rabbis connected the Sabbath River with the Assyrian exile of the Ten Tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that "Israel was sent into exile beyond the Sambatyon…" [*] Settlement beyond a river whose name and behavior reflect the holiness of the Sabbath day is thus symbolic of spiritual and physical exile.

The Prophets, unwilling to accept the finality of exile and assimilation, kept alive the hope that the Ten Tribes continued to exist, by promising the ultimate ingathering of the exiles and the reunion of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The rabbinic concepts of exile "beyond the Sambatyon" and the prophetic promises of return together inspired a messianic quest that persisted for centuries: the mythical river had only to be found, and the final redemption might be expedited.

These motifs re-emerge in medieval and post-medieval Jewish folktales and writings, in which the kingdom where the Ten Tribes reside is described as the ultimate utopia, a fantasized existence that was clearly a comfort to the downtrodden Jews of the Diaspora. The Jews in this kingdom are strong, proud and fearless, often warriors, and their land overflows with precious gems, fertile livestock, exotic fruits and abundant produce.

"Once," said Rafael, "I read in a book about the River Sambatyon and the Ten Lost Tribes and the Sons of Moses, and I would like to know where it is better, there or in the Land of Israel."

"You should know the answer yourself," I replied. "The Ten Tribes and the Sons of Moses [who live beyond the Sambatyon] live in constant hope of setting out to the Land of Israel. They would have done so at once had not the Holy One Blessed-be-He encircled them with the River Sambatyon. All week long this river is filled with wild rapids that cast about great stones; the river rests only on the Sabbath, and on this day they cannot cross because of their great piety. And you ask which place is better? Why, of course, the Land of Israel!"

From S.Y. Agnon's A Guest for the Night


Christian denominations with messianic aspirations were equally eager to discover such a kingdom; the existence of Israelites offered the possibility of converting them and thereby hastening the arrival of the millennium. It was inevitable that the myth of the Sambatyon became linked with a related story, which appeared in the latter part of the 12th century and persisted for several centuries. According to this legend, there lived a powerful Christian priest and monarch named Prester John somewhere beyond the Moslem countries.
Prester John ruled over a vast and wealthy Empire, first placed in Asia (sometimes near Armenia), but later more generally placed in Africa. More than one hundred manuscripts recounting the Prester John story have been preserved in different libraries around the world; the texts are similar to one another and all contain references to the Ten Tribes and the myth of the Sambatyon River. References to Prester John may be found in Obadiah of Bertinoro's letter, in the selection from David Reubeni's diary, and in Gershon Yiddls' travel book.

In this collection of writings from the 1st through the 17th century, we follow the river as it makes its way through the dreams and fantasies of travelers, scholars and theologians. As we read Jewish historian Josephus Flavius' description of future Roman emperor Titus taking his morning walk in the 1st century, and the imaginative tales of such travelers as Eldad the Danite (9th century) and Yiddls of Prague (13th century), the Sambatyon seems to grow ever more marvelous and fantastic, taking on new forms and implications. In the 17th century, we observe the myth fashioning history in Menasseh Ben Israel's passionate plea to the English parliament regarding the return of the expelled Jews to England, and in the messianic proclamations of Nathan of Gaza.

In Letters from Beyond the Sambatyon and its accompanying CD-ROM, the echoes of an event which took place nearly 3,000 years ago resound across the world stage, carried along by the myth of a magical river.

II: A fanciful tale by 9th-century traveler Eldad the Danite

BT Sanhedrin 10 [back]



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