In Search of the Sambatyon
The Whereabouts of the Mysterious River
“We have sought to answer the request of the perfect sage K’vod Moreinu haRav Nosson Shapiro to send a copy of the letter from our brethren the Bnei Moshe Rabbeinu, who dwell on the other side of Sambatyon, in the year 1657, and from that time the letter was hidden with us and it never saw light. And to answer the request of the sho’el – the wise K’vod Moreinu Harav Nosson, we have copied a portion of what was written there, but the rest we cannot write over, for the matters are ancient [ie a secret]…” [ Letter from the Rabbanim of Yerushalayim to Rav Nosson Shapiro of Reggio, Italy- discovered by the Chida]
In our last article, we explained who the Bnei Moshe are, and how they ended up behind the Sambatyon River. We learned about Eldad Hadani, and how some of his tales are consistent with statements made by Chazal. In this article, we will examine more of Eldad’s words on the Bnei Moshe, and see if there is truth to what he said. So sit back and relax, as your mind takes you to distant lands…
Sefer Eldad Hadani
Among Eldad’s stories about the lost tribes is a report on the Bnei Moshe. This is how Eldad describes them:
And they are baalei Emunah, and their Talmud is entirely in lashon hakodesh, and thus do they teach: So did our Rabbis learn from Yehoshua ben Nun, [who learned] from our father Moshe, [who learned] from the Almighty… And they only speak Hebrew and they are all pure and immerse regularly, and they never swear….And they live long till 100 or 120 years… they don’t lock their houses at night for it is an embarrassment for them. A young lad can travel with a flock for 10 days without fear of bandits or demons. And they are all Leviim, there is no Cohen or Yisrael, and they have the holiness of Moshe Rabbeinu, the righteous servant of Hashem.1These quotations are from the earliest printed version of Sefer Eldad, which can be found on page 68 of Avraham Epstein’s sefer, Eldad Hadani.
About the Sambatyon itself, Eldad says:
And furthermore, neither they see any man, nor does any man see them, except for the four shevatim who dwell beyond the mountains of Kush…When they want to speak [with each other], they have certain species of pigeons, and they write letters and tie it to the wings or feet of the pigeons, and they travel over Sambatyon… and the river is 200 cubits wide, and it is filled with big and small stones and they all move with a tremendous noise… and at night the noise can be heard a day’s travel away, and the river travels, and the stones and sand shake the six days of the week, and rest on the seventh… and there is a fire that burns [on Shabbos], so that no man may cross over.”
Eldad also vividly describes the lifestyle of the Bnei Moshe, leading us to believe that perhaps he somehow made it to the other side! He says that the land surrounded by the Sambatyon River is a large expanse of territory, measuring three months’ travel by three months’ travel. He describes the Bnei Moshe as having an abundance of gold, silver, and precious stones, and that they dwell in splendid palaces. They also have all kinds of orchards and fields, and only kosher animals and birds live in their territory. In short, the Bnei Moshe are a tribe of complete tzaddikim, with a level of kedusha way beyond ours.
But the question is: Can his words be trusted? We mentioned in the last article the controversy surrounding Eldad.2Ibn Ezra on Shemos 22:2 explicitly counsels not to believe the stories of Eldad Hadani. On the other hand, Rav Tzemach Gaon in the teshuva we quoted from in the previous article, did not consider it problematic to believe the stories Eldad told. Are these reports reliable?
A Dusty Manuscript
Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, better known by his acronym Chida (1724- 1807), was one of the most brilliant Sefardic achronim, who wrote dozens of seforim. He lived in Chevron for many years but also went abroad to Europe, where he collected funds for the poor of the Holy Land. The Chida documented his travels on behalf of the poor of Chevron in his sefer Maagal Tov, which provides a detailed image of Western European Jewry in the 18th century.3See “In the Tower”, Kankan issue 1, about the Chida’s visit in the Tower of London.
When Chida passed through Reggio, Italy, he was given access to the personal library of the late mekubal, Rav Nosson Shapiro. It was there that he discovered a copy of a letter from the Bnei Moshe to the Rabbanim of Yerushalayim! This manuscript had the signatures of many distinguished Rabbanim affixed to it as a mark of authenticity, and the Chida was able to verify their signatures because in his words, “and I the young one recognized most of the signatures from the pesakim of these rabbis which I had in my own possession.”4Midvar Kadmus; Maareches chochma, 18. See there for a list of the Rabbanim who signed this document. While the Chida only mentions a few details of what occurred, the complete letter appears in the sefer Kol Mevasser. We quote the opening lines in the beginning of this article; now let’s take a look at what the letter says in full.
In 1657, R’ Baruch Gad, a dayan in Yerushalayim, traveled to Persia to fundraise for the poor of Yerushalayim. But bandits robbed him of all his possessions, except for letters of recommendation, given by the Rabbanim of Yerushalayim, and then left him to die alone in the middle of the desert.
R’ Baruch Gad wandered through the desert, completely lost, for 11 days. On the eleventh day, when he was close to death, he met a warrior of tremendous size, who carried a spear and tried to kill him. R’ Baruch Gad cried out fearfully in Lashon Hakodesh, “Which nation are you from?” The warrior replied “Ivri anochi [I am a Jew]. Aval mi attah [But who are you]?”
R’ Baruch Gad replied by reciting Shema Yisroel, and told this giant warrior who he was and what had happened to him. The man was very excited to meet a Yerushalmi Jew, and gave R’ Baruch Gad food and drink. Then the man explained that he was from shevet Naftali, and told R’ Baruch to rest up, while he reported to his shevet about the visitor from Yerushalayim. When R’ Baruch Gad expressed a desire to go with him, the warrior replied,“You are too weak to travel with me. Stay here and rest up, while I travel with kefitzas haderech to my shevet and tell them about you. And I will give you an amulet, so you will have no fear of bandits or animals.” With that, he swiftly ran away.
Three days later, the warrior returned to R’ Baruch Gad and exclaimed, “I traveled a three-month-long journey in three days!” Then he added: “I traveled to all the tribes, and told them everything you told me, and about the fact that you are serving the nations. I showed them the letter from the Rabbanim of Yerushalayim, and we worried greatly over your suffering. And we also went to the Bnei Moshe and told them of your plight, and they sent this letter to deliver back to Yerushalayim.”
Rav Baruch Gad was extremely moved to hear this, and asked his benefactor, “What is your name?” “Malkiel,” was the answer. Then Malkiel led R’ Baruch Gad out of the desert. On the fourth day of their journey, Malkiel bid farewell to R’ Baruch Gad.
“Here is the boundary of our territory, and I am forbidden to leave it. Guard the amulet that I gave you with holiness and purity, and you will not need to fear anything, and in three days you will come to the land of Shinar.”5A region of present day Iran/Iraq. With words of blessing, the two departed from each other, and R’ Baruch secretly held on to the correspondence from the Bnei Moshe, until he arrived back home, and gave it to the elders of Yerushalayim. The letter is so wondrous, it deserves to be quoted almost in full:
Iggeres from the Bnei Moshe
This is from us, our dear brothers Bnei Yisrael, the tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin, the sons of the patriarchs of the world, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov…
This is from us your brethren the Bnei Moshe Rabbeinu, who dwell on the other side of Sambatyon… And our souls groan exceedingly and mourn like desert ostriches, the destruction of the temple, and the length of the exile. And there is great anxiety in our hearts saying “what did we sin to Hashem our G-d, there is none like him, that we were pushed to this place?” You, Yehuda and Binyamin, are privileged to ascend the holy mount Yerushalayim. For even though the Temple was destroyed, and gentiles came into our portion, and defiled the holy sanctuary, and placed Yerushalayim as ruin,…6The writers are paraphrasing the verse in Tehillim 79:1. the Shechina still rests on the Western wall. Why should we lose out from dwelling in the land, while you can dwell on sacred ground opposite the Shechina?
And it happened some years ago, that an Arab from Turkey who was captured by Kushites, and sold to four tribes – Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher. .. They then sent this goy to us, and he told us bitter things about you. We were unsure if we should believe him, until the day we saw the letter you brought us… That day was a day of great mourning and wailing for us. Great was the crying. We cried heavily for you. How can such a great evil tiding be borne? Your land opposite you -strangers consume, and they blaspheme you and our holy pure religion, and you cannot answer them for they will burn you in fire! Woe to the eyes that see this, and woe to the ears that hear this!
Having expressed their grief over the news of Klal Yisroel’s suffering, the Bnei Moshe describe themselves:
Yet we rejoiced tremendously for ourselves, for G-d has granted us our portion that we are free and have our own monarchy. We rule over great places, and there is no nation or tongue among us, for the River Sambatyon surrounds us on all sides. And this river has no water, only rocks,7Exactly as Rashi in Sanhedrin describes it! and all six days of the week the sand raises a tremendous noise like the waves of the Ocean in a tempest, and on the holy Shabbos day it rests. And a fire burns on the river’s edge from erev Shabbos until motzaei Shabbos, and no man can cross over the entire Shabbos day, because of the fire which burns…
When our brothers the aforementioned four shevatim come to talk with us, we stand on opposite sides of the River. And we live securely in our land, there is no impure thing in our borders, neither unkosher animals, nor unkosher birds…and we live in beautiful houses… with sheep, cattle, silver, and an abundance of precious stones and pearls. We have no need for candlelight, for we have precious stones whose light is 70 times the light of candles. We have nice clothing, and our lifespan is at least 120 years. We are a large multitude, four times those who left Egypt… and the good of the land was given to us because we kept the Torahs. We learn Tanach, Mishna, halachos , and aggados, and we never swear in the name of Hashem, for whoever swears in the name of Hashem will die within three days…
The letter ends with words of encouragement for all of us who are under the yoke of nations, and ends with the signatures Achitov ben Azaryah, the king of the Bnei Moshe, Yehotzadok ben Ozer, the Nasi, and Uriel ben Aviasaf, the elder.
This letter, authenticated by the Rabbanim of Yerushalayim and the Chida, matches up almost exactly with Eldad’s description, and would thus seem to verify his words.
But there is one problem: Another version of this letter.
The Second letter
The Kol Mevasser brings a second version of the above letter, which was printed by R’ Yosef Ergas (1685-1730) in his sefer Pri Megadim.8Not to be confused with the Halachic sefer Pri Megadim by Rav Yosef Teumim. This letter was brought to him by a certain Rav Shlomo Adahen from Fez, and has a very different version of how R’ Baruch Gad met R’ Malkiel. In this letter, R’ Baruch Gad, who is only called R’ Gad, was traveling with a large Arab caravan which was attacked by Malkiel and other members of his shevet. Everyone else was killed, but R’ Gad survived by lying amongst the dead. When Malkiel and his friends were examining their plunder, they found R’ Gad’s camel, whose saddle bag was stuffed with seforim. Distraught at the thought of having killed a fellow Jew, Malkiel returned to the site of the ambush intent on bringing this victim to kever Yisrael, but instead he found R’ Gad there, alive and well.
From this point on, the details of the story are the same as related in the first letter, except for the text of the letter from the Bnei Moshe. In this version, it is much shorter, and the Bnei Moshe chastises Klal Yisroel for their sins, expressing wonder that we are not as strong as they. What is interesting to note is that the same details mentioned by Eldad and the letter discovered by the Chida are again mentioned in this version without discrepancies.
This second version though mentions things not said in the Chida’s letter, such as:
And the land is divided into many portions, and each portion has its own king, and Azaryahu ben Yehoyada is the king over all of them.
And also the sons of Gad and Reuvain cannot cross their borders, and if they do, they will fall into the hands of their enemies… except when their enemies cross to fight them, then they cross over to take vengeance. 9Kol Mevasser, page 54. This explains why Malkiel wasn’t allowed to accompany R’ Baruch Gad all the way to Bavel.
Which of these two texts is the authentic letter? Can either of them be relied upon? It seems that the letter discovered by the Chida has more credibility, as that was a copy of the original letter given by the rabbanim of Yerushalayim to Rav Nosson Shapiro. On the other hand, the opening lines of this letter, as quoted at the outset of this article, come with a disclaimer that “we have copied a portion of what was written there, but the rest we cannot write over, for the matters are ancient.” Perhaps for whatever reason, these Rabbanim decided to leave out some details of the story.
In the final analysis, the details of the Bnei Moshe’s lifestyle cited in each version are identical, so that it can be said with reasonable certainty that Eldad’s report is accurate.
To be continued…