The myth of the Sambatyon River wound its way through the dreams and fantasies of travelers, scholars and theologians. Community after community recounted folktales in varied and colorful versions, the magical river at the heart of each. The following tale is based on the writings of a ninth-century traveler of mysterious origins who visited Jewish communities in North Africa and Spain. Calling himself Eldad the Danite, he bruoght news of the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher allegedly residing in the land of Havilah, beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.

His account is fanciful and imaginative, as is the following selection.

When the Jews were exiled to Babylonia after the Destruction of the First Temple, among them were the Levites, whose task it had been to sing in the Holy Temple. Nebuchadnezzar commanded them to appear before him with their harps and sing to him.

"How can we sing before Israel's enemy?" they said. "If only we had sung more of God's praises when the Temple still stood, it might not have been destroyed!"

With tears in their eyes, they hung their harps in the willow boughs along the Euphrates River and then slashed their fingers with sharp knives so that they could no longer play. Then they came before Nebuchadnezzar and held up their bloody hands. Enraged at their impudence, the Babylonian king ordered them all executed in the morning.

That night the Levites and their families prayed to God and prepared themselves to die in order to sanctify the Holy Name. But when the morning mist lifted, they found to their surprise that they were no longer in Babylon, but in a strange and beautiful land they had never seen before. Everywhere fruit trees were in blos-som, and the air was filled with a sweet fragrance. On three sides, the land was bordered by the sea, and on the fourth side flowed a wide river in the midst of which boulders rolled and crashed with a ceaseless thunder.

This was the River Sambatyon. For six days of the week, the rocks in the river's midst continued their tireless churning. But on the Sabbath they rested, and the river was as still and smooth as glass. To keep out enemies, a curtain of fire arose on the opposite bank and remained there until the following sunset, when the rocks resumed their weekday commotion.

The Levites soon discovered that their new land was a paradise. The trees and flowers bloomed twice each year, and the seeds sown in the fields produced a hundredfold. Grandparents never saw a grandchild die before them and the old left the earth in perfect health. There were no soldiers, judges, or guards among them, for all was peaceful and just.

Only once did someone not of the tribe of Levi cross the Sambatyon. It happened soon after the Destruction of the Second Temple, when an evil pagan priest, a warlock, ruled Jerusalem and tormented the Jews left behind after the Roman siege. He was a giant of a man, and like Goliath, he challenged the Jews to send a champion to defeat him in wisdom, or he would destroy them all.

The sages in Jerusalem drew lots to choose one of their number to cross the Sambatyon and summon a champion from among the inhabitants there. The lot fell upon one of the youngest among them. Before he left, they made him divorce his wife, for he would have to desecrate the Sabbath to cross the river on the one day that it was still. But they gave him no permission to desecrate the Sabbath to come back.
He traveled for many days and finally arrived at the banks of the Sambatyon. Swiftly he passed through the fiery wall into the lands of B'nai Moshe, the descendants of the Levites, and he told them of his mission. They, too, drew lots, and the lot fell upon a dwarf, hunchbacked and lame. He, too, divorced his wife, crossed the Sambatyon, and made his way to Jerusalem.

When the giant warlock saw the hunchbacked dwarf, he laughed. "So this is whom you have sent to challenge me! Then prepare to lose your lives."

The people of Jerusalem erected a wide platform in the middle of the city for this contest of wits, and the two men climbed up and stood upon it. First it was the warlock's turn. Chanting magic incantations, he made wheat grow right out of the wooden boards of the platform. But the dwarf conjured up roosters that quickly devoured the wheat.

Then it was the dwarf's turn. He made two giant trees sprout up out of the platform. Within seconds their leafy tops pierced the clouds.

"Now show your power," challenged the dwarf. "Bring the treetops down to the ground."

So the warlock summoned all his power and made the treetops bow low to the ground. But as soon as the warlock grabbed hold of the uppermost branches, one in each hand, the dwarf caused the treetops to spring back into the sky, splitting the warlock right down the middle. Then the dwarf conjured up two great millstones that floated in midair and ground the two halves of the warlock's body until nothing remained but dust, which the dwarf scattered to the winds.

And then suddenly he, too, vanished into the air.

I: The myth of the mighty Sabbath river

From: The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore, Ellen Frankel, ed. (New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1993)
Ninth-century traveler Eldad ha-Dani (the Danite), Haggadot Ketu'ot; English Language source: Bin Gorion I



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