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In Search of the Sambatyon

The Whereabouts of the Mysterious River
Part III

“With the help of Hashem, Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan 591 (1830) in the holy land Eretz Yisrael and the holy cities Yerushalayim, Chevron, and the holy upper Galilee Tzfas, may it be speedily rebuilt in our days, amen.  From your brothers the residents of Eretz Yisrael, who attach and delve into Toras Yekusiel, to our brothers the bnei Yisrael, the son of Yitzchak, the son Avraham who revealed the faith of G-d, to them our holy and pure brothers, tzadikei yesod olam, Bnei Moshe Rabbeinu servant of Hashem, who dwell beyond the River Sambatyon…”

Letter  from the Rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael  to the Bnei Moshe


Desc.: Jacob Saphir portrait
Source: Jewish Encyclopedia
Date: 1906
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now that we know who the Bnei Moshe are, we are going to learn about a wondrous story which occurred during the lifetime of R’ Yisrael of Shklov, [Shklow, Belarus] one of the primary students of the Vilna Gaon, and leader of the first group of students of the Vilna Gaon to settle in Eretz Yisrael.  This incredible story is brought down in multiple places – the sefer Kol Mevasser by R’ Shimon Horowitz, the sefer Tevous Haaretz by R’ Yonosan Schwartz, and in sefer Even Saphir by R’ Yaakov Saphir.  The authors of these works personally knew people who were alive at the time this story happened.  Although there are a few slight variances between these sources, we have examined each source in order to ascertain the most accurate description of what happened.  With that introduction, let’s travel back in time to Sanaa, Yemen.

A Mysterious Man

Around the year 1828, a messenger was sent from Tzfas to Yemen, to collect funds for the indigent talmidei chachamim of that city.  Arriving in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, he was accorded much honor by the Teimani Jews, who were happy to host a resident of the holy city and to support the scholars of the Holy Land.  One day, while this messenger was in a small shul, he beheld a man of striking appearance engrossed in prayer.  The man was clearly not a Teimani, as his clothing was of the style worn by those of the Far East.

“Who is this man?” the messenger asked those around him.  “When did he come here?”

“Well, he came a few days ago.  No one’s quite sure where he came from, but he claims to be from the tribe of Dan.”

“Is that so! I must meet with him and talk with him.  How can I arrange a meeting?”

“We will try to speak to him and arrange a time.”

The Messenger and the Danite

Tombstone of R’ Yisrael of Shklov in Tiberias

The messenger’s friends were able to arrange a meeting with the Danite.  The next morning, he visited the Danite at his place of lodging.  There he was able to get a closer look at him.  The Danite was very tall, with a long beard and peyos that reached his shoulders.  He wore a wide sash embroidered with the words of the blessing Yaakov Avinu gave to Dan,1Bereishis 49:17. “Dan will be a serpent on the highway, a viper by the path, that bite’s a horse’s heels so that its rider falls backward.” From this sash dangled a long curved sword.  Though the Danite was usually very precise with his words, he happily greeted this messenger from Eretz Yisrael and inquired about the status of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.

The messenger told him the full truth: How the beis hamikdash had been destroyed and the Jews sent into exile.  He told the Danite of all the suffering endured by Jewry during the long exile, and how Muslim hands reigned heavily over the Jews who resided in the Holy Land.  It was obviously the first time the Danite had heard this.  He was completely unaware of what had transpired during the previous 1,500 years of Jewish history.  He fell to the ground in a convulsion of weeping.  Loud groans emanated from him, as he mourned the destruction of the beis hamikdash, the pain of the Shechinah, and the plight of his brethren.  After a half-hour of, being unable to speak due to his immense pain, he was able to compose himself.  The messenger of Tzfas then asked him, “And what about you? Which land do you come from? Tell me about your tribe.”

“We have a kingdom very far from Sanaa, where we live in peace and tranquility.  Our king is called the Nassi, and he is a strong warrior, as well as a tzaddik.”

The messenger was astounded.  He asked the Danite, “Why did you come to Sanaa?”

“I was sent by the Nassi, to see how our brothers in the Western lands were faring.” Then he added, “Would you like to accompany me back to my tribe? I am leaving tomorrow.”

“Of course!”

Return of the Messenger

After the messenger of Tzfas agreed to go with the Danite, he began to doubt his decision.  Perhaps he shouldn’t abandon his fundraising trip to go on such a long mission? Other doubts filled his mind, and he was still unsure what to do when the Danite came to pick him up the next morning.  When the Danite heard of his uncertainties, vacillating between going with him and not going, he became frustrated and left angrily.

After the Danite left, the messenger came to his senses and decided to go see the land of the tribe of Dan.  But no one knew where the mysterious Danite had gone! It was as if he had been swallowed up in the expanse of the great desert.

Left with no choice, the messenger returned to Tzfas and related his story, which caused quite a stir among the Jews of Tzfas.  The rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael, led by the great gaon R’ Yisrael of Shklov, convened to discuss the matter, and it was decided that R’Baruch of Tzfas who was a big talmid chacham and much experienced in the ways of the world, would be sent to try to make contact with shevet Dan and by extension, the Bnei Moshe.

The rabbanim wrote a long letter to the Bnei Moshe, (They hoped the Danites would be able to take the letter to the Sambatyon.) In it they described the chain of the mesorah, from the Mishna to the Gemara, and from the Gemara to the Gaonim, Rishonim, and Achronim.  They wrote about Rashbi and Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda haNassi and Ravina, the Rif, Rambam, R’ Yosef Karo, and of course the Vilna Gaon.  They also requested four things from the Bnei Moshe:

  • To daven for their brethren in galus that Hashem should have mercy on His people.
  • To send members of the Bnei Moshe to give semicha to the chachamim in Eretz Yisrael, so the Sanhedrin could be reinstated.2The Bnei Moshe still possessed the chain of semicha going all the way back to Moshe Rabbbeinu.
  • To send gold and silver to alleviate the poverty of the residents of Eretz Yisrael.
  • To send a detailed report of life beyond the Sambatyon.

The rabbanim also packed R’ Baruch with the writings of the Arizal and the Vilna Gaon, to send to the Bnei Moshe.  But before sending R’ Baruch off, they imposed an oath on him, not to turn aside from his mission to seek out the tribe of Dan and the Bnei Moshe.

Rav Baruch in Yemen

Desc.: Photograph of Jews from the mountain village Maswar, in Northwest Yemen
Author: Hermann Burchardt (1857–1909)
Source: Ost und West, Berlin 1902, p. 340
Date: May 1902

R’ Baruch arrived at Sanaa in the month of Av in 1832.  He made his way to the beis din of Sanaa and related his mission to the av beis din, Rabbi Yosef Al Karah.  R’ Yosef accorded him much respect and gave him one of Sanaa’s dayanim Rabbi Yachyi Halavan as a travel guide.  Together, the pair set off in search of the shevatim.

They traveled in the desert east of Sanaa for 15 days, until they came to the small village of Qaidun, which was the last outpost of civilization before the great unknown.  The two stocked up on provisions for the long journey into the desert, and also hired a camel.  Three days out of Qaidun, tragedy struck!  A snake bit R’ Baruch’s foot!3There are a few versions of what exactly happened. According to R’ Yonason Schwartz in his sefer Tevuos Haaretz, the snake bit R’ Baruch’s travel mate. The man viewed it as a bad omen, and insisted on going back to Sanaa, and despite R’ Baruch’s entreaties, the man stubbornly refused to continue the journey. Rather than continue alone in the desert, R’ Baruch was forced to abort the mission and return to Sanaa. According to R’ Shimon Horowitz in sefer Kol Mevaser, the snake bit R’ Baruch’s foot on the first day out of Sanaa, but they pressed on to the village of Qaidun which was the last settlement in Yemen before the desert. We present the version of Even Saphir at this point in our story, because the author was in Yemen not long after it took place and he heard what happened from the above-mentioned R’ Yosef Al Karo, and others who were personally involved in the story. R’ Shimon Horowitz was not yet living at the time of the story, and even R’ Yonason Shwartz who was somewhat involved in this mission, was in Eretz Yisrael at the time and only heard what happened third-hand. Despite the pain and the danger he was in, R’ Baruch placed full bitachon in Hashem that He would help them complete their mission.  And so, they doggedly pressed on through the blazing heat, and soon Hashem’s help arrived.  They discovered a lost sheep wandering in the desert! Quickly, R’ Baruch slaughtered the sheep and removed its innards.  He then placed the animal’s stomach on his wound, in order to draw out the snake venom.  The remedy worked effectively, and within a short time, R’ Baruch was feeling much better.

But what was a lost sheep doing in the middle of the desert? If there was a lost sheep, that would mean that there was a flock and a shepherd somewhere.

Indeed a short while later, they stumbled upon a flock of sheep!

The shepherd upon seeing these two men, asked them “Have you seen a missing sheep?”

“I took it,” replied R’ Baruch.

The shepherd became incensed, but R’ Baruch calmed him by showing him his wound and explaining what had transpired.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“We are Yehudim.  Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!”

When the shepherd heard this, he became very excited.  He explained that he too was Jewish, whereupon  R’ Baruch explained to him the purpose of his mission.

“Would you be able to take us to the Bnei Moshe?”

“I can’t take you with me,” the shepherd answered.  “But give me your letters, and I will tell my brothers.  In the meantime, return to Qaidun and wait there, until we send you an answer.”

Return to Sanaa

At this point, the Satan began to plot against R’ Baruch.  The pair returned to Qaidun, where they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  R’ Baruch began to feel anxious.  Rosh Hashana was coming, and he wanted to daven in a big shul in Sanaa, not in some small village, but R’ Yachyi Halavan managed to convince him to persevere.

Another reason why R’ Baruch wanted to return was that the pasha of Sanaa was gravely ill, and none of the local doctors could find a cure for him.  Even though he had sworn not to turn aside from his mission, R’ Baruch became convinced that he should return to Sanaa, where he could use his superior medical knowledge to heal the pasha, and this way he would be favorably disposed towards the Jews of Yemen.  Despite R’ Yachyi’s entreaties, R’ Baruch insisted on heading back to Sanaa and instructed R’ Yachyi to remain behind in Qaidun to wait for a response.

“I will only be here for a short while,” he said.  Alas, it was not to be.

Rav Baruch’s Passing

R’ Baruch managed to convince the local doctors in Sanaa to let him try to heal the ailing ruler.  His herbs and potions worked wonders, and the Pasha miraculously recovered.  The grateful ruler raised R’ Baruch to a very high position in the government and dressed him in royal robes.  At all hours of the day, he could be found in the company of the Pasha, who really enjoyed talking with such a wise person.

But all this proved to be his undoing.  Some of the Pasha’s ministers began to feel extremely jealous that R’ Baruch was accorded much more honor than them.  How could a lowly Jew rise to such a high position! They began slandering R’ Baruch to the Pasha and accused him of all sorts of imaginary crimes.  At the time, a war was being waged between Yemen and Pasha Ibrahim of Egypt, and the government ministers accused R’ Baruch of being a spy.  After refusing to believe the accusations for so long, the Pasha eventually started to believe them, resulting in feelings of animosity towards R’ Baruch.  Finally, the unthinkable happened: The Pasha had R’ Baruch executed as a spy and cast his body into the street for the animals to devour.

But Hashem would not allow his tzaddikim to be disgraced.  Not one animal approached R’ Baruch’s body! Seeing this, the Pasha became filled with remorse, and he realized that he had killed a holy man.  He released his body to the Jewish community and built a beautiful tomb for him.4R’ Yaakov Saphir davened at his kever, and he even spoke with the men who buried him, who also told him the story of what happened.  Over time, it became a pilgrimage site not only for the Jews of Yemen, but even for many Muslims as well.  And for the rest of the Pasha’s life, he treated the Jews respectfully, in order to atone for his grave sin.

End of the Story

Desc.: Old City of Sanaa
Date: 15 August 2013
Author: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia
Credit: Creative Commons

Shortly after R’ Baruch’s death, a few Jews arrived from Qaidun with the following report:  A few days after the previous Sukkos, a few horsemen entered Qaidun and asked to see the Yerushalmi, thinking that  R’ Baruch was from Yerushalayim.

When told that he had returned to Sanaa, they immediately did an about-face and galloped off into the desert.

R’ Yachyi Halavan, distraught at what had happened, set off into the dangerous wilderness by himself, in order to find the shevatim.  Unfortunately, he was never seen again.

And so our story concludes, but without a happy ending.  We know that many times throughout history, tzaddikim tried to bring Mashiach.  It is possible that permission was granted to the Satan to interfere with R’ Baruch’s holy mission because the time was not right.  In this case, Satan convinced R’ Baruch to go against his oath, with tragic results.  But even though Mashiach did not come from the efforts of the rabbanim of Eretz Yisrael, we are a nation of believers and await his arrival every day.  May he come speedily in our days, Amen.

To be continued…

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