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THE 10 LOST TRIBES: The biggest mystery in Jewish history


Question: What are the Lost Tribes of Israel?
Demetrius, Madison

Answer: Time for some Jewish mythbusters, Demetrius!

The lost tribes are one of the biggest mysteries of Jewish history, and as you might expect, there are plenty of people with their own 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 tribes being spoken of are, of course, those of ancient Israel. The Israelites were divided into twelve 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).

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

According to Prof. 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 Akiba is quoted as saying, “Just as the day goes and does not return so [the ten 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


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