Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 28 August 2004 / 11 Elul 5764

The Lost Tribes Where Are They Today?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

Dear Christopher,

Regarding your question as to where the Lost Tribes were exiled, we saw in the previous installment that according to our sources they were exiled south to Ethiopia, and East through Syria, Iraq, Iran, and as far as India. [This should not be confused with those Jews who settled these lands much later, after the Exile in Roman times]. In addition, while discussing whether the Tribes will be re-united with the Jewish people in the future (which will be brought in detail in the next installment), Tiferet Israel (Sanhedrin 10:3) mentions that there are remnants of the Tribes living in Afghanistan and China as well.

Lets explore who and where these Tribes are today, and whether they and their customs are Jewish:

The Jews of Ethiopia are from Northwestern Ethiopia bordering Sudan. They call themselves "Beta Israel" (House of Israel), claim to be from the tribe of Dan, and number about 500,000 (most currently live in Israel). In Ethiopia, they preserved authentic Jewish beliefs and practices, including belief in the G-d of Israel, His oneness, Jews as the Chosen People, Torah from Sinai, Reward and Punishment, Redemption, Messiah and Return to Zion. Their texts include: Torah (Orit), Prophets, Laws of Sambet (Sabbath), and Prayer book. They maintain strict Sabbath observance. For example, women prepare Sabbath food only after immersing in a mikve, work stops midday Friday, no fire is used to keep food warm, but they use candles for light, all work is forbidden, and they even wear a special Sabbath robe with no belt to prevent tying.

They pray 3 times a day morning, noon, dusk while facing Jerusalem, have certain blessings and observe Torah based Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuoth - when only work to prepare food is permitted. They eat only meat from kosher animals and perform ritual slaughter while turning the animals head toward Jerusalem and reciting a blessing. The blood is covered, the meat is salted to remove blood, and forbidden sinews and fats are removed. Meat and milk are not cooked together, but poultry is not considered meat for this purpose. They greatly emphasize ritual purity and their villages are always near a river for immersion. They purify from contact with dead after 7 days, sprinkling on the 3rd and 7th day with water from ashes of a red heifer. Menstruating women move to a separate tent for 7 days until immersion.

The "Beta Israel" of Ethiopia are generally considered Jewish. The great halachic authority, Rabbi David ben Zimra (Israel, 1500s) wrote: "Those that come from the land of Cush (Ethiopia) are without doubt from the tribe of Dan, and because they did not have scholars of the Oral Law living with them they follow the superficial understanding of the Torah. But if they were taught, they would not reject the rabbinic teachings. Therefore it is a mitzvah to save them and support them" (Shut HaRadbaz 1:5, 1:7). Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, (Yabia Omer 8, Even HaEzer 11) also considers them Jewish without a doubt. Other poskim are unsure, and suggest that they undergo conversion to dispel any doubts.

The other groups well discuss do not profess to be Jewish, and, as a result of assimilation, forced conversion and large-scale intermarriage, are not considered Jewish, although they certainly have vestiges of Jewish practices.

The tribes in Afghanistan are comprised of two groups. Those in Western Afghanistan bordering Iran call themselves "Yusufzai", Children of Josef. They claim to be descendents of Efraim and Menashe and have a tradition of being taken away from their ancient homeland. They live secluded in high mountains and marry only among themselves. They are devout Muslims but have Hebrew names, wear fringes on the corners of their clothing, light candles for Sabbath on Friday night and dont cut the hair on side of the head, all resembling the Jewish custom. The other group lives on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and call themselves "Bani Yisrael", Children of Israel. They have a tradition of being the Lost Tribes and use names such as Asher, Naftali, Efraim, Menashe, Reuven, and Gad. They circumcise on the 8th day, wear four cornered garments with fringes and some wear small boxes with verses inside. They light candles Friday night, dont labor or cook and bake 12 loaves. The tribes of Afghan number about 15 million individuals.

The Kashmiri live in Northern India bordering Tibet and Nepal. They have a tradition that they are descendents of the Tribes of Israel. They have a lighter complexion and different facial features than the local population. Their tribal names are reminiscent of the Hebrew: Asheriya, Dand, Gadha, Lavi, Kahana, Shaul; as well as the names of their places: Samaryah, Mamre, Pishgah, Heshba, Gochen. They light candles for Sabbath, observe a feast in spring called Pasca, adjust the lunar and solar calendars to coincide, have beards and side-locks, and the Star of David is prevalent on their dwellings and places of worship. They number 5-7 million.

On the border of Northeastern India between Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) live the Shin lung. They claim to be descendents of Menashe and have a detailed oral history of exile through Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Afghanistan where they were forcibly converted to Islam. They later migrated to Tibet, following the Wei River into central China, were persecuted by the Chinese, escaped and hid in mountainous caves, and there became known as "Shin lung" meaning mountain/cave dwellers. They were later banished and migrated west through Thailand, Myanmar, finally settling in the Chin Mountains on the border between Burma and Bangladesh. They performed circumcision on the 8th day until it became too difficult because of exile and persecution; now they only give the name on the 8th day.

The priest of every village is called Aaron, whose wardrobe resembles that of the high priest including a tunic, breastplate, embroidered coat, with belt and high hat. Apparently, they have offerings and sacrifices similar to those of the Torah. They have a traditional song that accompanied them through their migrations: "We must keep the Passover festival because we crossed the Red Sea on dry land. At night we crossed with a fire, and by day with a cloud. Enemies pursued us with chariots and the sea swallowed them up and used them as food for the fish. And when we were thirsty, we received water from the rock." There are some 1-2 million Shin lung. In the late 1800s missionaries arrived, and the Shin lung, recognizing beliefs and events in the Old Testament, converted to Christianity thinking they were returning to their ancestral people. Eventually, many realized they descended from Jews, and thousands converted to Judaism. Of those, 5000 live in Burma, and a few hundred have settled in Israel.

The last group that lives in areas mentioned in our sources is the Chiang-Min, on the border between Tibet and China in the mountainous area of Sichuan. They appear more Semitic than Oriental, and have a tradition of having migrated from the West after a journey of 3 years and 3 months. They claim to descend from Abraham, and their ancestor had 12 sons. They believe in one all-powerful god called the "Father of Heaven" who they refer to in times of trouble by the tetragrammaton. He watches over the world, judges fairly, rewards the righteous, punishes the wicked, accepts repentance, and gives atonement. In the past, they had written scrolls of parchment and books, but they were lost. It is forbidden to worship foreign gods or idols upon punishment of death. They also have priestly and sacrificial services reminiscent of those of the Torah, using an earthen altar that must not be fashioned by metal tools, where the priest places his hand on the head of the sacrifice.

Thus far, we have located peoples that may be remnants of the Lost Tribes, living in places mentioned in our sources such as Ethiopia, Iran/Afghanistan, India and China. In the next installment, well explore the possibility of the Lost Tribes reaching a place not mentioned in our sources, namely Japan, and well conclude with a discussion of whether the Lost Tribes will ever be re-united with the Jewish people.

Sources:

  • North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry Arimasa Kubo, The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Myanmar, and China
  • Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, Amishav Organization

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