Searching for the Lost Ten Tribes: A Story

This letter is dedicated to Reb Yona Meir Kauffman.


Dear Friends,


The term “Lost Ten Tribes” refers to the ten tribes from the northern kingdom of Israel that went into exile before the exile of the two main tribes from the southern kingdom of Judah: Judah and Benjamin. When the exact whereabouts of the ten tribes were no longer known, they were referred to as, “The Lost Ten Tribes.”  As we began to discuss in previous letters, the yearning for our reunion with the Lost Ten Tribes is rooted in the following realization:  


Each of our tribes has a unique characteristic which helps us to fulfill our spiritual and universal mission as the people of the Torah.


The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs (1:16) mentions “the ten tribes that were exiled beyond the Sambatyon River,” and regarding their future return to the Promised Land, the Midrash adds:


“In the future, the Diaspora of Judah and Benjamin will go to them to bring them back, in order that they too will merit the days of the Messiah and the Life of the World to Come.” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1: #985)


The “World to Come” can refer to the world that righteous souls enter when they leave this world; however, the “World to Come” can also refer to the final stage of human history on this earth, following the resurrection of the dead. The ten tribes will therefore merit “the Life of the World to Come” together with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.


The above midrashic teaching was among the teachings which inspired individuals from Judah and Benjamin to seek their brethren, the Lost Ten Tribes. The following story from Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel – can serve as an example:


The “Perushim” were an influential community composed of the disciples of the Vilna Gaon that had arrived in Eretz Yisrael in the early 19th century. Most of them settled in Tsfas (Safed), and they eventually became based in Jerusalem. Their immigration to Eretz Yisrael strengthened the “Old Yishuv” – the old settlement of Torah-committed Jewish men and women that preceded the modern Zionist movement. 

 In 1815, Arabian nomads came to Jerusalem with news of a lost tribe of Jews in Yemen. The excitement this news caused among the Perushim was immeasurable. The community of Perushim decided to send two of its members to investigate the fantastic report. They set out across the desert with two Arab escorts.  After a very long journey, they reached the capital of Yemen and interviewed the Jewish leaders there. To their dismay, they learned that while the ten tribes were rumored to live somewhere in the wilderness of Yemen, no one knew of the exact whereabouts. After the two Perushim returned to Jerusalem and gave their report, the matter was laid to rest for several years.


In 1830, Rav Yisrael of Shklov, head of the Perushim, decided to take action. He sent Rav Baruch of Pinsk to Yemen with three letters for the king of the Tribes. As soon as Rav Baruch departed, Rav Yisrael sent another letter to his dear friend and patron, Tzvi Hirsch Lehren of Amsterdam, enclosing copies of what he had written to the Lost Tribes. Rav Lehren read the letters excitedly, and translated his enthusiasm into action by publishing them and sending them to the heads of Jewish congregations throughout Europe. He saw in this endeavor the fulfillment of a teaching from the Zohar which connects the revelation of the Lost Ten Tribes with the dawn of the messianic age. The success of this mission of the Perushim would surely lead Jews everywhere to engage in a process of “teshuvah” – spiritual return, and teshuvah was the key to having the “Moshiach” (Messiah) reveal himself and fulfill his lofty task in the world.
When Rav Baruch arrived in San’a, a major city in Yemen, the leader of the Jewish community, Rav Yosef Elkara, received him with great honor and promised to help him find the Tribes. He told Rav Baruch that there was a group of Jews in Aden, a city at the southern tip of Yemen, and that this particular group was reported to stem from the Lost Ten Tribes. Rav Baruch was bolstered by the news, and he set out by camel across the desert on the journey to Aden.
At one point he met a shepherd boy who at first glance looked more like a Bedouin than a Jew. Rav Baruch questioned him and discovered that he had tzitzis – the traditional four-corned garment with fringes worn by Jewish men; moreover, he also had  tefillin – the traditional leather boxes with scrolls which are worn by Jewish men during the weekday morning prayers. The boy claimed to be from the Lost Ten Tribes. Excitedly, Rav Baruch asked permission to meet the king of the Tribes, but was flatly refused. At best, the shepherd boy agreed to take the letters to the king and return with a reply. In the meantime, Rav Baruch continued on to Aden and waited.
Months passed without any response. In the meanwhile, Rav Baruch became the Yemenite monarch’s personal physician, and over the course of time his original mission receded to the back of his mind. He eventually wrote to the Perushim, telling them the details of his journey. Shortly thereafter, he was murdered. With his death, this particular search for the Lost Ten Tribes ended. Although the people of the Old Yishuv knew that the ten tribes lived somewhere beyond the Sambatyon River, it seemed that the time for them to come out of exile had not yet arrived.


The people of the Old Yishuv, however, maintained their faith in the fulfillment of the prophecies regarding the ingathering of all the tribes that were exiled from the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. For example, it is written regarding the Moshiach:


“He will raise a banner for the nations and assemble the castaways of Israel, and the scattered ones of Judah He will gather from the four corners of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:12)

In the following prophecy, the Prophet Ezekiel conveys the following Divine promise regarding life in the Land following the ingathering and reunion of the Twelve Tribes of Israel:

“I will seal a covenant of shalom with them; it will be an eternal covenant with them; and I will emplace them and increase them, and I will place My Sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be among them; I will be God to them, and they will be a people unto Me. Then the nations will know that I am Hashem Who sanctifies Israel, when My Sanctuary will be among them forever.” (Ezekiel 37:26-28)


“My dwelling place will be among them” – I will place My Shechinah among them (Targum).


Be Well, and Shalom,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (see below)


The above story is a summary of a story which is found in the following book: “Where Heaven Touches Earth: by Dovid Rossoff. pages 205, 206.


 “Where Heaven Touches Earth” is a moving and historical account of Jewish life in Jerusalem from the medieval period to the present. I highly recommend it, and a Hebrew edition is also available. It is distributed by Feldheim Publishers. For information, visit:  

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