A Beta Israel woman makes injera (Ethiopian flatbread) in Gondar, Ethiopia in 1996. (Wikimedia Commons)

What Are Judaism’s Lost Tribes?

Who were they and where are they now?

The lost tribes are one of the biggest mysteries of Jewish history, and have inspired multiple theories. Maybe the Igbo Jews of Nigeria are one of the lost tribes? Perhaps Bene Menashe, in Northern India, can claim the title. Or the Pashtun people of Afghanistan. Or Native Americans. These groups and many more have claimed to have descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

The Origin of the Lost Tribes

The tribes being spoken of are, of course, those of ancient Israel. The Israelites were divided into 12 tribes (not including the Levites who were not landowners). Each tribe was assigned a piece of the Land in Israel. After King Solomon died around 922 BCE, the tribes split into two kingdoms as a result of a power struggle. The northern kingdom consisted of Reuben, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, and Menasseh. The southern kingdom was composed of Judah, Simeon, and most of Benjamin (often it was referred to simply as Judah).

In 722 BCE Assyria invaded Israel, and the northern kingdom was conquered. Many of the people who lived in the northern kingdom were exiled, mainly to Assyria, Media, and Aram-Naharaim. Archaeological evidence suggests that they were eventually completely assimilated into these societies. Meanwhile, some alien populations — Cutha, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim — were brought in to settle the northern kingdom, and those groups all ended up assimilating with each other and with the Israelites who remained in the north.

In 586 BCE the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar attacked the southern kingdom, and exiled much of that population to Babylon. Though many lost their Israelite identity in Babylon, plenty of them retained their connection to their heritage, and eventually returned to Israel and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. By that point the northern kingdom was lost. Today’s Jews stem from the people of Judah (thus, Judaism).

What Happened to the Lost Tribes

Tudor Parfitt of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies has studied the lost tribes for years, and has written a comprehensive book on the subject called  The Lost Tribes of Israel.

According to Parfitt, the lost tribes all assimilated into the groups around them, and eventually disappeared. At first, the people of Judah who returned to their land may have wondered about being united with the other tribes. The prophet Ezekiel even predicted that God would reunite the northern and southern kingdoms some time in the future.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva is quoted as saying, “Just as the day goes and does not return so [the 10 tribes] went and will not return.” (Sanhedrin 110b) However, over time dozens of theories have come forth about the whereabouts of the tribes of the northern kingdom. It’s difficult to find a region of the world that doesn’t contain a group that has at some point claimed to have descended from the lost tribes. In North and South America, Japan, China, Ethiopia, South Africa, India, Nigeria, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Afghanistan and Burma, there are thousands who claim Israelite ancestry.

Parfitt doesn’t believe any of these claims, mainly because they all seem to stem from a sense of being different and persecuted, rather than from any historical evidence. He argues that though these people may identify as Jews, and sometimes even approximate Jewish practices such as observing Shabbat, and only eating meat that has been slaughtered in a specific way, their claims are based on legends, not lineage. In some cases, when a minority group was persecuted it was called “Jewish” to denote evil, and the historically-inaccurate label stuck. Parfitt’s thesis is the accepted view of the academic world today, upheld by a number of other scholars in the field.

Ethiopia’s Beta Israel

However, the contemporary Jewish community has accepted at least one group claiming to be descended from a lost tribe: the Beta Israel, or Jews from Ethiopia, who claim to trace their lineage to the tribe of Dan. Their connection to Dan comes from a late ninth century Jew called Eldad HaDani, or Eldad the Danite. Eldad showed up in Tunisia speaking Hebrew and told the Jewish community there that he was a member of the tribe of Dan, who had settled in the land of Cush (modern day Ethiopia). The Jews of Tunisia weren’t sure whether to believe Eldad, so they consulted with the head of North African and Middle Eastern Jewry at the time, Rabbi Tzemach Gaon, who affirmed Eldad’s story. In the16th century a North African scholar known as the Radbaz repeated this affirmation. Today many scholars believe that Eldad came from an Arabic-speaking land and was nothing more than a harmless freeloader, or employed by Karaites.

In 1973, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, then the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, declared the Beta Israel to be descendants of the tribe of Dan, relying on responsa from the Radbaz and Rabbi Tzemach Gaon. Shortly after Yosef made this ruling, the State of Israel began aiding the members of Beta Israel who were being persecuted and sought to escape Ethiopia. As Jews they were eligible for the Law of Return, and subsequently more than 15,000 members of Beta Israel were airlifted out of their homeland, and into Israel. Though some scholars still doubt the veracity of their claims to lineage, the Beta Israel have been accepted as Jews by nearly all of the rabbinic authorities in Israel today.

Assuming the lost tribes assimilated fully into other groups around the seventh century BCE, as Parfitt and others argue, these tribes’ descendants are now spread all over the world, scattered in every region without any knowledge of their ancient Jewish lineage. It’s more than likely that these descendants are walking among us today, and some of them may even be part of the groups that associate themselves with the lost tribes.

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