Skip to main content

In Search of the Sambatyon

The Whereabouts of the Mysterious River – 1st of Series

“Leimor lassurim tzeiu, lasher bachoshech higalu…”
“Saying to the prisoners ‘go free’, and to the ones in darkness ‘reveal yourself’.”  (Yeshayahu 49:9)
“Saying to the prisoners ‘go free’, this refers to those who were exiled beyond the Sambatyon.”  (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:4; Bamidbar Rabbah 16:25; Eicha Rabba 2:9)

In this series, we will explore the subject of the Sambatyon River.  Beyond this river dwell the Aseres Hashevotim and the Bnei Moshe- the descendants of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Although the concept of a river which spews forth earth and boulders, may seem fantastical, we will learn that such a river does actually exist on this earth, and isolated behind it are hundreds of thousands of Yidden who are waiting for Mashiach just as we do.  We will learn about the various expeditions sent to find the Bnei Moshe, and lastly we will attempt to see if we can locate the Sambatyon on a map. 

What is Sambatyon?

In Maseches Sanhedrin,1Sanhedrin 65b we find a discussion between Turnus Rufus, the Roman ruler of Eretz Yisrael, and Rabbi Akiva.  Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva “how do you know that the seventh day of the week is Shabbos? Maybe it’s another day?”

Rabbi Akiva replies, “The Sambatyon river will prove it.”  Rashi explains that the Sambatyon2Sometimes this river is referred to as Sabatyon, other times it is called Sambatyon, but both refer to the same river and both derive from the Hebrew word “Shavas,” to rest. is a river of stones that “during the whole week churns and flows, and rests on the Shabbos day.”  It is interesting to note that Rashi doesn’t describe the Sambatyon as a raging river of water that hurls boulders in the air, as many understand it to be.  Rather, he says that it is a river filled with stones rather than water, which moves with a tempest.

Title: Portrait of a Man, Aged Forty-Four
Artist: Govert Flinck (1615–1660)
Date: 1637
Note: Between 9 April 1902 and 11 April 1902 it was purchased by F. Kleinberger Gallery, Paris, at the sale of the collection of Léon Mniszech at Paul Chevallier, Paris, lot no. 110, for FFR 27,000 as ‘Portrait de Menasseh ben Israel. A superb portrait, where the painter, representing Rembrandt’s friend seems to have equaled his master
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another fascinating thing about the Sambatyon is that any dirt removed from the river will continue to shake and jump violently six days a week in whatever vessel it is placed, even if moved thousands of miles away! This phenomenon is documented in a few sources.  One of these3See the sefer Kol Mevasser by Rav Shimon Horowitz, who brings a few other stories about jumping sand from the Sambatyon. is the sefer Mikveh Yisrael, written by Rav Menashe ben- Israel of Amsterdam (1604-1657) to prepare Klal Yisrael for what he believed was the imminent coming of Moshiach.  He writes that his father related that when they were living as secret Jews in Lisbon, a black gentile would walk through the streets of Lisbon late Friday afternoon holding a glass vessel full of jumping sand and stones.  This served as a sign for the converso Jews that Shabbos was coming, and they would then close their stores.

Who Lives Behind the Sambatyon?

Many Midrashim4See for example Bamidbar Rabba 16:25. Melachim 17:9 tells us that the shevatim were exiled to Chalach, Chatzor, Nahar Gozen, and the cities of Madai. Ramban in Bereishis explains that Nahar Gozen is the Sambatyon River. mention that the Aseres Hashevatim5The topic of the Aseres Hashevatim is a complex one, worthy of its own article. For the sake of clarity, we will focus exclusively on the Sambatyon. were exiled to the land behind the Sambatyon.  However, there are many sources that indicate that a significant portion of those living across the Sambatyon river are the Bnei Moshe, and they are the focus of this article.

The Bnei Moshe

Who are the Bnei Moshe?  Moshe’s descendants are mentioned in Targum Yonasan in Shemos 34:10.6See Shem HaGedolim by the Chida, who says that the Targum Yonason printed in our Chumashim was not authored by the Tanna, R’ Yonason ben Uziel, but is instead a different version of Targum Yerushalmi, an ancient translation and commentary on the Torah. Following the episode of the sin of the golden calf, when Moshe beseeched Hashem to personally lead the Jews to Eretz Yisrael rather than an angel doing so, Hashem told Moshe, “Behold I make a covenant! Before your entire people I shall make distinctions such as have never been created in the entire world and among all the nations, and the entire people in whose midst you are, will see the work of Hashem…”

Although on a literal level, the Torah is referring to the Jewish people, Targum Yonasan understands this as addressing Moshe personally as well: “…  However from you will come a nation of Tzaddikim.  Opposite your nation I will separate them when they are sitting on the banks of Bavel, and I will remove them from there, and will settle them on the inner banks of Sambatyon.  And while they are there they will not be revealed to the inhabitants of the whole world,..”  Here we see clearly that the Bnei Moshe were removed to the other side of Sambatyon, where they are hidden from the world at large.

Moshe’s descendants are also mentioned in Divrei Hayamim:7Divrei Hayamim vol. I, 23:15-17The sons of Moshe, Gershom and Eliezer.  The sons of Gershon, Shevuel the chief.  The sons of Eliezer, Rechaviah the chief.  Eliezer had no other sons, but the sons of Rechaviah proliferated greatly.”  The Gemara comments on this,8Brachos 7a. that “proliferated greatly” means over 600,000 descendants.  Thus even though Hashem did not destroy the Jewish nation as he had originally suggested he would do, he still fulfilled his promise to Moshe that “I shall make you a great nation.”

We thus have two statements from Chazal describing a nation of Moshe Rabbeinu’s descendants.  Returning to the description of the Bnei Moshe in Targum Yonason, we find something interesting:

I will separate them when they are sitting on the banks of Bavel, and I will remove them from there, and will settle them on the inner banks of Sambatyon.

It sounds like the Bnei Moshe went into exile with the rest of the Jews after Churban Bayis Rishon.  But if so, how did it come about that they were “removed from there” and ended up behind the Sambatyon?  The key to answering this question is the fascinating figure known as Eldad Hadani.

Enter Eldad Hadani

Title: Divrei HaYamim
Description: A collection of history booklets, including Sefer Eldad
Published: Venice, 1544
Credit: National Library of Israel

In the ninth century, a Jewish traveler appeared in Bavel and North Africa who went by the name of Eldad, and he claimed to be a member of shevet Dan.  He told fantastical tales of his travels and of the Aseres Hashevatim.  He also spoke a dialect of Lashon Hakodesh which was very different from the Hebrew spoken by the Jews of Bavel.  It included many words that didn’t appear anywhere in Tanach, but according to him had been part of the Hebrew spoken by the Jews in the Midbar.9Eldad said that the Shevatim didn’t teach Torah in the name of a particular sage, but rather would transmit teaching by saying, “Yehoshua said from Moshe who heard from the Almighty…” Some of his halachos have been cited by Rishonim: For example, see Sefer HaEshkol, Hilchos Shechita, halacha beis, “And I found in old sefarim…”; The Mordechai at the beginning of Chullin states, “Rabbeinu Baruch wrote: I saw in the laws of Shechita that R’ Eldad Hadani brought… but these are stringencies and we do not follow him,” and the beginning of sefer Ha’Agur? “And I the Mechaber think in my heart that his intent was in Kodashim for they are extra stringencies which were applied to Kodashim…” He also taught many halachos of the lost tribes – particularly in the laws of slaughtering, which were not in keeping with the psak of the Gemara.

The veracity of his stories, halachos, and Hebrew dialect was disputed throughout the ages, and we will not delve into that topic.10Eldad, too, is worthy of his own article. For more information about Eldad Hadani and his stories, see Eldad Hadani by Avraham Epstein, who researched Eldad’s history at length. Look out for an article about Eldad in a future Kankan issue.  Here we focus instead on those of Eldad’s tales that concern the Bnei Moshe.  One of these stories is brought down in Bereishis Rabbasi (ascribed to R’ Moshe Hadarshan):11The following is a loose translation. For the exact wording see ibid., page 42.

And some say of the Bnei Moshe who dwells on the inner banks of Sambatyon: Our rabbis have said, at the time that the Jews were exiled to Bavel, as the pasuk states “by the rivers of Bavel…” the nations said to the Levites “stand in front of our idols and sing, the way you used to sing in the temple!

The Levites replied “Fools! If we had only sung praise for all the miracles Hashem did for us, we wouldn’t have been exiled from our land! And now you want to add glory to us and have us sing to idols?”  Thereupon the soldiers arose and killed many of them.  And even though many were slaughtered, great was the joy that they did not serve idols… What did the surviving Levites do? They cut off their thumbs so they could not play their harps, and when their captors demanded them to play, they showed them their mutilated thumbs. 

When night came, a cloud descended on them and their families, and Hashem lit the way for them with a pillar of fire.  They traveled all night until morning, where they found themselves on the banks of the sea.  Once the sun rose, the pillar of fire and the cloud dissipated, and Hashem stretched a river whose name is Sambatyon around them, and enclosed it around them in order that no person could cross over to them… And the river is full of rocks and sand, and draws sand and dirt with a tremendous noise heard a half day’s travel away.  It draws sand and rocks six days a week, and rests on Shabbos.  And right away, a fire rises from the beginning of Shabbos till the end of Shabbos, so no man may cross over…”

This story related by Eldad illuminates the words of the Targum Yonason quoted above.  The Bnei Moshe, who deliberately mutilated themselves so they wouldn’t be forced to serve idols, were rewarded by Hashem by being removed from galus Bavel, to their own haven of tranquility.

The Questions of Kairouan Jewry

When Eldad made his way to Kairouan, Tunisia, the local Jews were unsure what to make of his bizarre reports.  They didn’t know whether to treat his stories as authentic midrashim or cleverly crafted fairy tales, nor were they at all familiar with some of the Hebrew words spoken by Eldad.  So they did what every Jewish community does when faced with a difficult question: They presented it to one of the leading sages of the generation.  In this case, that was Rav Tzemach ben Rav Chaim Gaon of Sura.12The Jews of Kairouan would again make history in later years, when Rav Yaakov of Kairouan sent eight questions to Rav Sherira Gaon in Bavel, whose response to Kairouan is known to history as the Iggeres Rav Sherira Gaon.   Rav Tzemach responded:

Concerning the matter of R’ Eldad Hadani which you sent before us and that which you heard from him: The sages told us who heard from Rabana Yitzchak ben Mar and Rabana Simcha who saw R’ Eldad and were perplexed at his words, for some of them appeared like the words of our sages, and some were different…

And this that the Bnei Moshe are near them (the lost tribes) and the Sambatyon encircles them, he said the truth, for so did our rabbis teach in a midrash, that Nevuchadnezzer exiled 600,000 Levi’im – Bnei Moshe, and when they reached the rivers of Bavel with their harps, what occurred to them is what Rebbi Eldad said.”

The teshuva goes on to address the other questions posed by the Kairouan rabbis, but what is relevant for our purposes is that we learn that Eldad’s story of the Bnei Moshe is actually an ancient Midrash.  Although this midrash is no longer extant,13Rashi in Kiddushin 69b cites a version of this story, writing that the Levi’im who cut off their thumbs were the Levi’im mentioned in the Mishna in the fourth perek, who ascended with Ezra to Eretz Yisrael. It appears that Hashem wanted only the Bnei Moshe to be moved beyond Sambatyon. we can rely on Rav Tzemach Gaon to confirm this particular story of Eldad’s, and understand the words of the Targum Yonason.  Eldad also described the lifestyle of the Bnei Moshe, which we will discuss in the next article in this series.    


Title: Kol Mevasser
Author: Rav Shimon Horowitz
Published: Jerusalem, 1923

The following story appears in the sefer Kol Mevasser14Kol Mevasser, Jerusalem 1923, page 111. by Rav Shimon Horowitz, who in turn quotes it from the sefer Degel Machane Yehuda by Rav Yehuda Tzvi of Stretin15Stratin, Ukraine. (1780-1844), who was a talmid of Rav Uri of Strelisk.16Novi Strilyshcha, Ukraine.

The Stretiner rebbe heard this story from his father R’ Seinwel from Stretin, who related that once while visiting Bessarabia with his father, they met an old Jew who had been a merchant and had once traveled with a fellow merchant to the Moscow region for a fair.  In those days, Jews in Russia were restricted to an area known as the Pale of Settlement, and since Moscow was outside of that area, these two men had to conceal their Jewish identity.

Late one night, the two were loudly awakened by the blaring of trumpets.  Rushing outside to see who had woken them up, they beheld a regiment of hulking warriors on horseback who were armed to the teeth.  The sight of these soldiers aroused fear in all who saw them, and when asked by the local Russian troops if they had come for war or peace, they replied that there was no reason to fear, as they just needed a place to spend the night.  A few of these warriors were put up in the same inn as these two Jewish merchants who observed that these huge soldiers appeared to be davening! But they were too afraid to approach and speak with them.

The next morning, the regiment assembled and the men mounted their horses, and with great fanfare, galloped out of town.  That evening, they returned to town, but whereas the soldiers had arrived the first time with great noise and the blowing of trumpets, this time they shuffled into town dejected as if having suffered some sort of defeat.  In the morning, the two Jewish merchants again saw the warriors in their inn and noticed that they had donned tallis and tefillin!  Clearly, then, these soldiers were Jewish.  But where did they come from?

Moscow in the 17th century

Their curiosity overcame their fear, and the two Jewish merchants approached the giant warriors and spoke with them in Hebrew.  They told them they were merchants who were there on business, and asked, “Who are you? Where do you come from? Why did you come originally with great fanfare, but returned to town last night dejected?”

The men responded “Know that we are Bnei Moshe, and we are mighty warriors.  One of us can kill 1,000 of the enemy.  Yesterday there was an announcement from Heaven that the sins and merits of Yisrael were measured, and were found to be exactly even.  Hashem who bears sin (Nosei Avon), tipped the scale towards the side of merit, and decreed that we should proceed to the Holy Land, and conquer it from the non-Jews.  We began traveling with great joy and fanfare, but today we heard another announcement from Heaven, informing us that a Jew had sinned, so that the sins were now more numerous than the merits.  This was the cause of sadness, for we had hoped for redemption.”

Hearing this, the merchants replied, “When we return home and repeat this story, no one will believe us.  Give us a sign, so we will be believed.”

Then one of the Bnei Moshe took a piece of paper from his travel bag and said,

“When you return home, on motzaei Yom Kippur read this piece of paper in the moonlight, and whoever reads it will see wonders: Anyone who reads it will see written on the paper everything which has occurred and everything destined to occur to him.”

The merchants took leave of the Bnei Moshe, and on their return home, they passed through the village of Neshchiz, home of the renowned rebbe, R’ Mordechai.  There they related what happened to them, but no one believed them, until motzaei Yom Kippur arrived.  That’s when they produced the piece of paper, and in the moonlight, everyone read exactly what had happened to them, and what their lives would look like in the future, and the entire town was incredulous.  When the Neshchizer rebbe heard the commotion, he also took the paper and began to read it.  Then he took the paper and tore it to shreds.  He explained that had they continued to read it, they would see when Mashiach would arrive, which could not be revealed.

This story, which took place in the 1700s, was related by the holy Stretiner rebbe, Rav Yehuda Tzvi, who heard it directly from his own father, who heard it from the Protagonist himself.  The story serves as testimony to the existence of the Bnei Moshe who live beyond the Sambatyon, and who are waiting for the day when they can meet us, may it happen very soon.  Amen.

To be continued

One Comment