Cohen-Levi: The Tribe, the Family Heritage

The Tribe


By Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman
(Use with permission only)

Historical Overview, Will They Return?, Tribes - Social and Spiritual
Beyond the Sambatyon, World Travelers, Tribes of the Future, Lost Tribes and Halacha

Yehuda/Judah - Kingship, Levi - Temple Service
Ashur - Assyria, Babylonia - Iraq, Persia - Iran, Yemen
CENTRAL ASIA: Pathans of Afghanistan, Kurds, Bukharia, The Khuzar Kingdom
JEWS IN THE EAST: China, Japan, Jews of India, The Shinlung - Bene Menashe
OUT OF AFRICA: Ethiopian Jewry, The Lemba
Ashkenazim, Sefardim


The Tribes of Israel are historically the descendants of the twelve sons of the Patriarch Jacob, who was also known as Israel. Each of Jacob's twelve sons was the father of the Tribe bearing his name. Joseph, Jacob's firstborn son of Rachel, was given a double portion through his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, becoming independent Tribes.

When the Hebrews left Egypt, they left as Tribes. When they camped at Mt. Sinai, they camped as Tribes. When they entered and settled the Land of Israel (approx. 1300 BCE), they settled as Tribes.

Each Tribe had its allotted portion of the Land and for many generations there was little "intermarriage" among them. Each Tribe had its flag, its colors, its particular tasks, and even its unique personality traits. Zevulun was on the seashore and engaged in commerce. Yissachar concentrated on full-time Torah scholarship. Members of the Tribe of Dan were known to be quick to seek judgement in court. Menashe had cattle; Asher produced oil. The Tribe of Yehuda (Judah) provided the kingship and national leadership. The Tribe of Levi was responsible for the Temple Service and spiritual instruction.

Historical Overview

With the construction and dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon, son of King David, the nation was united. However, this unity was short-lived. The generation after Solomon saw the division of the nation into two sovereign entities. The Southern Kingdom consisted mainly of the Tribe of Judah, with Benjamin and the Levi'im. Jerusalem was its center. In the North - the breakaway kingdom of Yisrael, later called Samaria - consisted of the ten remaining Tribes, including two and a half tribes on the east bank of the Jordan.

This situation of civil conflict and closed borders lasted until the attack by the Assyrian invaders from the north, who first conquered the Tribes of Gad, Reuven and half the Tribe of Menashe. They then conquered the other Northern Tribes and exiled them to the north and east, and in what historians believe to be 721 BCE.

Besides the Biblical statements describing the exile of the Ten Northern Tribes by the Assyrians (Chronicles 5:26, Kings II 18), there is significant historical and archeological evidence of such a forced migration. Hebrew references were found in the Nimrod Palace in northern Syria, as well as in Mede - ancient Persia - and in northeastern Iraq from that period, approx. 700 BCE. Assyrian wall-reliefs show Israelites being marched into captivity. Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian of the first century CE, describes Israelite Tribes living beyond the Euphrates river in inaccessible lands to the East.

Will They Return?

The Talmud discusses whether the Ten Tribes will ever return. There are two opinions, based on the Torah source "…and He will send them to another land as today" (Devarim 29:27). The first claims that the Tribes will, in the future, return: As the night yields to the day, so too they will come from the darkness of exile to the light of return. The second opinion is that they are not destined to return: Just as a day, when it is over, is gone, so they are gone forever. A compromise opinion holds that if their descendants repent and change their rebellious ways, they will return. Even the opinion that they will not return means to return en masse, as a unit. Individuals of all the Tribes were mixed among the remnants of the population of Judah, and their descendants will also return with the final redemption.

Based on the many Biblical statements and prophecies, the existence and return of the "Lost Tribes of Israel" has been seen as a sure sign and perhaps a necessary prerequisite for the final redemption and the Messianic age.

Interest in the "Lost Tribes" has not been confined to Jews. It has become an almost universal concept. Groups in Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iraq, Persia, China, Japan and in various places in Africa, have either claimed descent from the Lost Hebrew Tribes, or have been suggested by travelers or researchers for that distinction. It has even been suggested that some North and South American Indians, as well as the origins of the British people, could be traced to the Lost Tribes of Israel.

The "Tribes of Israel" in the widest sense includes the ancient Jewish exile communities, which developed in the Near East. Also included are descendants of Jews scattered and cut off from the main body of the Jewish people, found in far-flung places in the world.

The concept of Lost Tribes could also refer to non-Jewish groups who display some Jewish customs and traditions. Some of these communities have no Hebrew language, no "Jewish texts" and very little Torah theology. Some groups can show direct Jewish lineage, measurable to some extent now through modern genetic analysis, but many do not. They do have a sense of identification with the Jewish people, and a sense of belonging to the Tribes of Israel, though very broadly defined.

Tribes - Social and Spiritual

The nation of Israel, from their earliest history as a people, were organized as Tribes.

The word for tribe in Hebrew is shevet. Another often-used term for an Israelite Tribe is matteh. These words have a similar primary meaning of a "staff" or "rod," for example as a shepherd's staff or as the scepter of a ruler. The term indicates a united, cohesive social organization.

The Jewish Nation can be considered an association of Tribes, bound by ties of kinship and origin, with a common purpose and destiny maintained over generations.

A Tribe is basically endogamous - that is, its members marry and have children with partners from within the group

In Biblical times there was a specific hierarchy of the Tribe's subdivisions.

The family is the most basic unit of the Tribe. The unit above the individual family is the beit av - the father's house. Many fathers' houses comprised the mishpacha - the extended family. These served as a mishmar or ma'amad - the Temple service divisions, which were comprised of thousands of men. The total of the extended families made up the Tribe, and the Tribes made up the Nation.

The genealogical principle of origin from a common ancestor constitutes the basis of the Tribes' cohesiveness and its system of authority. Communal living and communal wandering are characteristic of a Tribe, as are common customs, dress, foods, language or dialect and shared symbols.

Beyond the physical dimension of the Tribes of Israel is a metaphysical level of the Tribes. Each Tribe represented and manifested a unique spiritual quality and power. Together, the twelve individual units created a transcendental whole.

The 12 Tribes match to the twelve months of the year, to the 12 signs of the Zodiac, and to the Kabbalistic sefirot.

The names of the Tribes were arranged on the jeweled breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, as he performed the Temple service, symbolizing unity from diversity - and thereby accessing the Divine Presence.

In the Bible, the Jewish People are referred to as "the Tribes of God." Among non-Jews, Jews are seen as "the Biblical Tribe."


Beyond The Sambatyon

The most common legend of the Lost Tribes is that they are located beyond the river Sambatyon (Sabbaton). This extraordinary river is reported to flow with rocks and stones. Its fierce flow halts only on the Sabbath.

Throughout the centuries, various citings of the Sambatyon have been reported. One creative explanation is that the Sambatyon may be the Bosphorous Straits near Istanbul, leading to the north and northeast. It changes current regularly, making it passable only at intervals. Some travelers have speculated that it is located in mountainous Asia. Others report its location in Arabia, fifty days' desert journey from Aden.

Metaphorically, the river Sambatyon represents the separation of the Lost Tribes of Israel from the awareness of mainstream Jewish communities for thousands of years.

World Travelers

Legends as to the existence of the Lost Tribes and their whereabouts were often based on travelers' reports. One of the earliest of these legendary travelers was Eldad HaDani, of the Tribe of Dan, who in the ninth century claimed to be from an independent Jewish state in East Africa, which he claimed was the home of some of the Lost Tribes of Asher, Gad, Naftali and Dan. His travels took him to Persia, where he claims he traveled beyond the Sambatyon River. There he claims to have encountered the Tribes of Yissachar and Zevulun. He described the Tribe of Reuven as living in peace and prosperity beyond Mt. Haran. The kings of Mede and Persia ruled over them, and they spoke Persian and also Hebrew. He further narrated that the Tribe of Ephraim and half the Tribe of Menashe dwelt in the mountains near Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. He claimed to have found the Tribe of Shimon and the other half of the Tribe of Menashe dwelling in the land of the Chaldeans. The story ends with Dani and his group settling down in the land of Cush - Ethiopia.

In the 12th century, Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew, traveled throughout Greece, Asia and North Africa. He wrote in his diary a long description of the Ten Tribes. He states that he had encountered in the town of Nishapir in Persia members of the Tribes of Dan, Asher, Zevulun and Naftali, who were governed by their own prince, Yosef of Markola. He also claimed that the Jews of Khaibor in Arabia are from the Tribes of Reuven and Gad and Menashe.

David Rubeni, in 1524, claimed to be a Prince of the Jewish Kingdom of Haber in central India. He dressed in flowing oriental robes and a turban, representing himself as ambassador of the Lost Tribes. He received audiences with national leaders and created much interest in the Jews of faraway lands. He brought the existence of the Cochin Jews of India for the first time to the knowledge of European Jewry.

Tribes of the Future

Many legends of the Lost Tribes relate to the future fate of the Jewish nation and the world. Based on Biblical passages, Midrashic literature paints scenarios of mass return of Jews to the Land of Israel preceding the coming of the Messiah and of further ingathering by the Messiah himself.

The word "Messiah," "the redeemer," is derived from the Hebrew word mashiach meaning "anointed to serve as king." He reestablishes the kingdom, being from the line of David of the Tribe of Judah. Gentile nations will bring their Jewish inhabitants back to their homeland in Israel.

Messiah and Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) will sort out unknown lineages and reestablish Tribe identity

. According to the prophecy of Ezekiel, the Land of Israel will once again be divided into tribal regions, with the renewal of the Temple service in Jerusalem. At this time, unity will once again reign as the House of Judah and the House of Israel will be at peace in their land. And the Divine Presence shall once again rest upon the Nation. ([4] Yirmiyahu 31, [5] Ezekiel 37)

Lost Tribes and Halacha

Halacha, applied Torah law, defines "Jewishness" as being determined by the mother's Jewish status. If a person's mother is halachically Jewish, then the child is Jewish - even from a non-Jewish father. The father determines the child's Tribe status. These days, that is whether he is a Cohen, Levi or Yisrael - which includes Yehuda and all others.

The various groups of peoples who have developed off the mainstream of World Jewry have intermixed with local populations and being out of contact with normative Judaism, have not followed the marriage and divorce procedures necessary to keep their lineage in order.

Having Jewish customs, Jewish names or even "Jewish genes" may indicate Jewish roots, but not Jewish halachic status. To acquire official Jewish status, such people require a halachic conversion, which involves Torah study, commitment to observance and a ritual bath (mikveh).


There is much discussion of the Lost Tribes. What about the Tribes that did not get lost? Which are they? The Tribe of Yehuda (Judah) and the Tribe of Levi.

The Tribe of Judah

The Tribe of Judah was the leading Tribe and the most populous of the Southern Kingdom. The majority of the survivors of the destruction of the Temple were from Judea. Thus, the entire Hebrew nation came to be known as "Jews" from Judah

. The patriarch of the Tribe, Judah son of Jacob, was a leader among his brothers. He was blessed by his father that "The staff and rod shall never pass from him." This indicates that Kingship and authority are his inheritance. The line of King David is the royal line of Yehuda. Kings of the Davidic line ruled during the First Temple period. Communal leaders and Torah decision-makers have been appointed from the Tribe of Yehuda throughout the generations.

The Kingship of Israel was promised to the line of David of the Tribe of Yehuda, and prophesized to be an inheritance forever, as written in the prophet Jeremiah 3:17: "Thus says God: I shall never cause to cease from the line of David a man to sit on the Throne of Israel … forever."

The longed for redeemer, the Melech HaMoshiach, the "Messianic king" is from the line of David, and he will reestablish the Davidic kingly dynasty. There are Jewish families, from both Ashkenazi and Sefardi traditions, which claim they can trace their lineage back to King David.

With the destruction of the First Temple and the loss of Jerusalem, the remnant of the Jews were exiled to Babylonia. There they were given much religious and cultural autonomy. They established a Torah-based society and maintained their lineage.

In later centuries, many of the Babylonian Jews settled in the Magreb - northern Africa. These communities, which are today the Iraqi and Moroccan Jews, show great genetic similarity, having maintained their ancient Hebrew lineage.

The Tribe of Levi

The Tribe of Levi is unique. Levi, the third son of the patriarch Jacob with his wife, Leah, was chastised for his quick anger. Yet, his descendants turned that zealousness to good, as they repeatedly stood up for values and God's honor.

The Tribe of Levi was chosen to perform the Temple service and to be the spiritual guides and instructors of the nation.

The Levites camped closest to Mt. Sinai at the receiving of the Torah and maintained that closeness to the holy precinct as the Tabernacle traveled in the midst of the Tribes through the desert and into the land of Israel. The Levites did not have an inherited portion in the land. Rather, they were allotted 42 Levitical cities, carved out of the territory of the other Tribes. The Levites received ma'aser - the tithing of grain and produce - from the populace as their income.

One particular family of the Tribe of Levi, the male descendants of Aharon, brother of Moses, were chosen to be the Kohanim - priests, the Temple officials of the nation.

The Kohanim were responsible for the daily functioning of the Temple and they themselves performed its most holy duties. The Kohen Gadol - High Priest - was the head of an extensive administration, which supervised all aspects of the service. Kohanim were sustained by 24 gifts and like the Levites received tithes from the people.

Numerous statements in the Torah and the Prophets promise that particularly the family of the Kohanim, the seed of Aaron, will never be lost.

Amazingly, recent discoveries in molecular genetics, the study of DNA patterns, indicates that most present-day Kohanim have identical genetic markers and are indeed direct descendants of a common ancestor who lived approximately 3,300 years ago, the period of Aharon HaKohen. (See: Kohanim Forever.)

The Talmud relates that the first Tribe to be purified in the future will be the Tribe of Levi.


The modern Jewish People consists of many and varied communities, all sharing a common heritage, belief system and destiny. These communities have developed, in geographically diverse regions, over approximately 2,000-2,500 years of exile from the land of Israel.

The oldest communities are those where the first exiles arrived: Ashur - Assyria, Babylonia - Iraq, and Persia - Iran. Jewish communities have existed there for more than two millennia, maintaining their cultural and religious identity throughout.

The Bible relates the early history of these exile communities. The story of Purim, described in the Megilla of Esther, occurs in the fifth century BCE in Persia. The burial sites of Esther and Mordechai are still venerated in Shushan, Iran. Aram Sova, the ancient community of Aleppo, Syria, possessed the most antique Torah scroll in existence.

In Babylonia the exile was relatively comfortable and most Jews remained there even with the re-establishment of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. A dynamic Torah community developed there over many centuries, producing the Babylonian Talmud in approximately 500 CE.

The Talmud, based on the Mishna, is the compilation of the Oral Law. Beside Halacha - Jewish Law - it includes far-ranging discussions on all aspects of life. The learning of Talmud allows a person to mentally enter the world of the most distinguished rabbi / scholars of Israel and Babylonia. The study, analysis, teaching and living by the Talmud was the main intellectual and spiritual lifeblood of the Jewish Diaspora.

After the Destruction of Second Temple, and the complete dispersal of the Jewish population, Babylonian Jewry became the mainstay of Jewish continuity. Until approximately 1,000 CE, Jewish leadership and scholarship was centered in Babylonia.

The Jews of Yemen

Yemen, located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has been the home to a Jewish population since the time of the Destruction of the Second Temple and possibly earlier. Land and sea routes led to Yemen from the Land of Israel, as well as via the Persian Gulf from Babylonia.

There is evidence of a Jewish kingdom of Himyar, as Yemen was known in pre-Islamic days. Jewish influence on the local Bedouin Arabs was significant. The advent of Islam in the seventh century, and the spread of the Moslem Empire, did not deflect the Jews of Yemen from their religion.

The Jews of Yemen survived as a distinct tribal entity for more than twenty centuries. The "Epistle To Yemen," written by Maimonides in the twelfth century indicates the contact they maintained with mainstream Jewish communities, particularly in North Africa.

The Jews of Yemen cultivated a deep Messianic hope and unshaken faith in redemption. In the 1950s, Operation "Magic Carpet" airlifted nearly their entire community of over 50,000 to Israel


The Pathans of Afghanistan

The Afghan tribe known as Pathans inhabits eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. They are Sunni Moslems with a population of millions, who retain to this day an amazing tradition of their descent from the Tribes of Israel.

Jews have lived among these tribes from pre-Islamic times. Their tradition is that they derive from King Saul of the Tribe of Benjamin. Early Jewish settlements influenced local Afghan tribes, spreading to them Jewish beliefs and customs - until the coming of the forced Moslem conversions in 662 CE. Pathans maintain Pashtunwali as their legal system, similar in part to the written Torah and different from Islam.

Patani oral tradition, as well as scrolls of genealogy, held among their tribes, testify to a connection to the ancient Israelites. Many of their tribal names are similar to the Tribes of Israel, such as: Rabani, Haftali, Asuri, etc. Some Pathans call themselves Beni Yisrael - "Sons of Israel." And they look distinctly Semitic - most with full beards, and some with sidelocks. Some perform male circumcision on the eighth day after birth, wear a Tallit-like cloak, and some families light candles on Friday night.

The Kurds

The tradition of descent from the Tribe of Benjamin has been especially strong among the Jews of Kurdistan. Their ancestors were likely exiles from Samaria, and later from Judah. The Judeo-Aramaic vernacular, known as Targum, is still spoken by Kurdish Jews. It is substantially the same language used in the Talmud, which was compiled in approximately 500 CE in Babylonia.

Kurdistan never attained political unity or sovereignty, being split into two main parts: Persian Kurdistan to the east, and Turkish Kurdistan to the west. With the creation of Iraq, many Kurds fell to Iraqi rule, and many Jews, at that time, immigrated to Israel.

The Jews of Kurdistan were among the only Jewish exile communities to have preserved its agricultural tradition throughout the ages. The entire community immigrated to Israel in the early years of the State. These included Jews from the city of Mosul, located across the river from the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Ninveh, identified in the Jewish tradition as Ashur.

Bukharian Jews

North of Iran and Afghanistan, located on the Silk Road to China, in what is now Uzbekistan, are the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. The history of Jewish settlement in Bukhara particularly, is very ancient.

Artifacts of Jewish culture, such as Aramaic script dated back 2,000 years or more, have been found in the area. The main surviving community of Bukharian Jews can now be found in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem.

The Khuzar Kingdom

Jewish legend, supported by historical evidence, relates the conversion to Judaism by the King of Khuzaria - a Crimean Turko-Asian empire in the 700s. R. Yehuda HaLevi used this event as the backdrop for his book The Kuzari, explaining Jewish belief and philosophy. The Khuzar kingdom flourished and survived perhaps as long as four centuries, until its defeat by Russians and Mongol hordes. There is a question as to whether Khuzar descendants contributed to European Jewry. Recent genetic research may help to resolve this origin issue.


The Jewish settlement in China has always been shrouded in mystery. There is some evidence that during the Hun Dynasty - second century BCE - Jews, coming mostly from Persia, settled in various locations, particularly in the city of Kaifeng-Fu, on the Yellow River, the capital of Hunan Province, in western China.

The small Jewish community enjoyed the protection of the Chinese rulers, prospering yet maintaining their ancestral customs. Though they dressed like the Chinese and spoke Chinese, they prayed in Hebrew. In 1163, a new synagogue was constructed in Kaifeng-Fu, and in the fifteenth century it was renovated - both times at government expense. Though the synagogue remains, there are virtually no indigenous Jews in China today.

The Chiang Min tribe in western China, near Tibet, maintains a tradition of connection to the ancient Israelites.


It cannot be said precisely when Jews first arrived in Japan. It is possible that some Jewish silk merchants came to Japan from China in the second century CE. Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch Jews traded in the Far East from the sixteenth century, coming in close contact with the Japanese.

Some Japanese believe that the Yamato clan leadership was descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. They also believe that the origin of the Hada tribe is traceable to the Hebrews, believing themselves to be connected to the maritime tribe of Zevulun.

Among present-day Japanese, the Makuya movement is a Christian religious sect, which is strongly Zionistic. Many of them have taken Hebrew names and follow Jewish observances, believing that they share a common root with the Jewish People.

The Jews of India

There are two distinct ancient Jewish communities in India. The Cochin Jews of South India, and the Beni Israel of West India.

The Cochin community may reach back to Biblical times. The merchant ships of King Solomon reached ports of the East, returning with spices, precious stones and rare flora and fauna. The ancient contacts between the land of Israel and India are supported by the several Hebrew words, which are common to the Indian Sanskrit and Tamil languages. The Cochin Jews have a tradition that tens of thousands of Jews arrived there after the destruction of the Second Temple.

For centuries the Cochin Jews never lost contact with mainstream Judaism. Their location near the ports of South India provided opportunities for outside interaction with travelers and merchants from Europe and the Middle East.

Documents found in the Cairo Geniza - book depository - indicate that between the 10th and 12th centuries commercial ties existed between Cochin Jews and Mediterranean communities.

In 1948, the community of some 2,500 Cochin Jews left to Israel. Presently, less than 100 Jews remain, living a twilight existence near the only functioning synagogue.

The origins of the Beni Israel Jews of West India are somewhat obscure. According to their tradition, their ancestors arrived by sea from the north, becoming shipwrecked and established the community near Bombay. For centuries they lived in isolation, until the middle of the 18th century, when they were discovered by a Cochin Jew, David Rahabi.

The Beni Israel had maintained many vestiges of Jewish practices - Shabbat and Holidays, some laws of Kashrut, and the prayer Shema Yisrael. Although they are Indian in appearance, speak an Indian language, and have been influenced by the surrounding culture, they have nonetheless maintained a quite separate existence from the other Indian groups in the area. Today the Beni Israel are the only sizable Jewish group in India. Several thousand of them still live in and around Bombay, though most have immigrated to Israel.

The Shinlung - Bene Menashe

In the mountainous region which lies on both sides of the Indian-Burmese border dwells the Shinlung Tribe, or as they call themselves, the Bene Menashe - sons of the Tribe of Menashe. They believe themselves to be descendants of the exiled Tribes who traveled east. Their origin story is that from Central Asia they migrated to the Tibet region and then into southern China, dwelling in caves. From China they immigrated to the Burma-Indian highlands centered in Manipur and Mizaram, where they have lived for centuries.

Their collective memory is that they are of Israelite descent. Their religious practices are different from surrounding peoples. Their tradition includes many Biblical aspects such as levirate marriage (a brother marries his deceased brother's childless wife), agricultural tithes, incest prohibitions, burial rather than cremation, and celebrating three major annual festivals.

In the early 1900's English missionaries converted the Shinlung to Christianity. However, since the 1950's, following a revelation to Mela Chala - a local farmer and mystic - that the Shinlung were truly the lost biblical Tribe of Menashe and soon they would be gathered to their ancestral homeland, many have begun to reactivate their Jewish connection.

Although thousands of Shinlung acknowledge their tribal legend of Israelite descent, most remain in India living as Christians. Five thousand or so have made a full return to Judaism, observing Shabbat, Kashrut and circumcision. These Bene Menashe are deeply Zionistic, with a strong love for Israel and a desire to live in the "Promised Land."

In recent years, hundreds of these Asian-looking people have returned to Israel, undergone a full-halachic conversion and have been integrated into settlements throughout the country.

The Ethiopian Jews

Perhaps most well-known of the claimants of Lost Tribe status are the black Jews of Ethiopia, formerly known as Falashas.

There are a number of theories about the origins of the Ethiopian Jews. One is that after the Exodus from Egypt they broke off and made their way down the coast of Africa to Ethiopia. Another is that they emigrated from Israel after the time of the destruction of First and Second Temples. Their origin tradition is that the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia), upon meeting King Solomon, converted to Judaism and bore him a son, Menelik. They believe that they are descended from the Hebrew notables sent with Menelik from Jerusalem to Ethiopia at that time.

The Falashas - which means "stranger" - maintained a separate cultural identity from their neighbors. Their Judaism is based on the Written Torah only, as they lacked all sources of the Oral Law. Their sacred texts are not in Hebrew, but written in Ge'ez - the Amharic language. Due to religious persecution, the community moved inland to the region of Gondar, becoming a semi-autonomous Jewish kingdom. Their over 1,000 year history includes victorious wars against other local tribes. Their heroes include leaders named Gideon and the Jewish queen Judith. For centuries Christians have persecuted and attempted conversion of the Falashas.

Throughout their history, in their liturgy and customs, they have expressed a longing for Zion and the land of Israel. The entire community was airlifted out of Africa to Israel in the early 1990's. Some rabbinical authorities have considered them to be remnants of the Tribe of Dan.

In something of a reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt, thousands of Ethiopians trekked for miles to reach the border and their flight to freedom and full citizenship in Israel. Within hours these traditional tribal people of Africa were transported into the modern world. Not only had they never seen an airplane before, but they had never seen stairs that lead up to the plane! Over 20,000 Ethiopian Jews have been welcomed home to their Promised Land.

The Lemba

Located in South Africa, particularly in the region known as the Venda, live a group of black Africans who claim descent from the ancient Hebrews. These are the Lemba. Though converted to Christianity, they maintain some Jewish-style practices including circumcision, Shofar (with a rhinoceros horn) and a degree of Kashrut - not eating meat with milk, nor pork. Their tribal emblem is an elephant within the Star of David.

Though some believe they are related to the Ethiopian Jews, the main Lemba origin legend is that they are descendants of the Hebrews who emigrated from Israel to Yemen, and from their legendary vanished city of Sana'a, possibly in Yemen, across the straits to the east coast of Africa to Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Lemba elders believe firmly that they are Jewish by lineage, if not by practice. Among the Lemba, the senior clan is the Buba, which some say means "from Judah." Buba is believed to be the early founder of the tribe. These men have different skin coloration and facial features than other Africans.

Genetic studies on the Lemba have indicated that they are of a different ethnic origin than their African neighbors. There is a definite Semitic contribution to the Lemba. A particular Y-chromosome haplotype (a combination of unique DNA markers) which occurs among Jewish men and especially among Kohanim was also found in a significant percentage of Lemba men, and particularly among the Buba clan. This indicates that some of the male lineage of the Lemba may indeed have a source among the Hebrews, most likely derived from Yemenite Jewish males, many centuries ago.

Native Americans

Mormons believe Native American Indians are a lost tribe of Israel whose ancestors were Hebrews and sailed to the Americas before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.


An evolving doctrine in Christian Zionism and Messianic Judaism, based on a new interpretation of scripture, holds that most true Christians are descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

The English

Some Protestant believers still endorse a popular theory of the Reformation that the English are a lost tribe of Israel and so God's "chosen people."

Black Hebrews

Some 2,000 African-American expatriates from Detroit and Chicago, who now live in Dimona in the Negev, believe they are descendants of the biblical Tribe of Judah.


For the first millennium after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, the center of World Jewry was Babylonia. Starting from the end of the eighth century, Jewish settlements began to develop in faraway places.

By the year 1,000 CE new communities had developed in North Africa and Spain and northwestern Europe.

At this time, World Jewry began to develop into two distinct exile communities, each based on its common geographical location and cultural influence, and rabbinical leadership.

The Sefardim - broadly defined - include some originally from Spain, and also include North Africans, and Mizrachim - Middle Eastern Jews. These communities lived under Islamic religious and social control.

The Ashkenazim developed in northern Europe, first in Western Europe and later in Eastern Europe - under Christian domination.

Ashkenazic and Sefardic Jews are much more similar than different. Both maintained strict observance of halacha - Jewish law - based on the Torah and Talmud, and rabbinical teachings. The two communities by virtue of a 1,000 year cultural separation developed some differences which distinguish each, such as some slight physical distinctions, spoken language and Hebrew pronunciation, dress customs, cuisine, music and various religious customs.

However, despite 1,000 years of cultural isolation and more than 2,000 years since the exile from the land of Israel, both the Ashkenazic and Sefardic communities have a nearly identical genetic profile - indicating a common origin in the Middle East and very little intermarriage with non-Jewish host communities during the entire Diaspora experience. (See Jewish Genes.)

The Ashkenazim

Ashkenaz is mentioned in Genesis and Chronicles as the son of Gomer, who is the son of Yafet, who is the son of Noah. Gomer is known as Germania, and Germania of Edom is Germany. Thus, the area of Europe where Jews first settled became known as Ashkenaz and its inhabitants, Ashkenazim.

As early as 900 CE, small Jewish settlements formed into a community with unique cultural patterns and communal organization as well as an independent rabbinical leadership. Jewish communities spread first westward and later eastward, all embracing Ashkenazic customs and culture, within the dominant Germanic and Slavic Medieval Christian society.

The earliest Jewish settlement in Europe most likely migrated north from the Mediterranean area. Merchants traveled early trade routes, finding economic opportunity in northern Europe. The early settlements along the Rhine River of Mainz, Worms, and Speyers became centers of Jewish immigration. By 1100 CE there may have been as many as 20,000 Jews living in the region.

Crucial to the development of these communities was the rabbinical leadership. Rabbenu Gershom (960-1030), born in Mainz, is known as the father of Ashkenazic Jewry. He and his rabbinical court established social and halachic decrees, which founded the community on solid Torah basis.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak) (1035-1100) was the premier Biblical and Talmudic commentary. He founded the line of Tosafos commentators and thereby set the tone of Jewish scholarship for centuries to come.

The conditions under which the Jews of Europe lived were difficult and often threatening. It is a wonder how the small community survived and developed under such harsh conditions.

When Patriarch Jacob prepared to face his vengeful brother Esau on his way back to the Land of Israel, he did three things:

1) He prayed to God for favor and protection.
2) He attempted to buy his way out of trouble with gifts.
3) He defensively divided his family to ensure at least partial survival.

And thus did the children of Jacob maintain themselves in the exile of Europe.

The Crusades, a fanatical Christian revival movement of the 11th and 12th centuries, brought terror and destruction to numerous Jewish communities in the Rhineland of France, in Germany and even England, as this rabble marched to purify the Holy Land of the infidels: Moslems and Jews.

Forced conversions, blood libels, segregation and discrimination, impoverishment and expulsion was the fate of Jewish individuals and entire communities.

The Talmud was burned publicly in Paris in 1242. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306.

From the 1300's Jews migrated in large numbers eastward, mainly to Poland. The Polish royalty and nobility saw the Jews as useful economically and welcomed their settlement.

Jews served as middlemen in the feudal system. The nobleman landowners leased use of their fields to the peasant-serfs with a Jew as the overseer, debt collector and enforcer. Jews were encouraged to serve as moneylenders, borrowing and lending at outrageous rates. Jews were also active in the lumber and the liquor businesses. Most Jews lived in poverty in small villages, barely making a living.

The Jews did not envy or admire the local non-Jewish population. There was little assimilation or acculturation. Jews maintained a dynamic religious life with Torah study and mitzvah observance the mainstay of their lives. "More than the Jews kept Shabbos, the Shabbos kept the Jews" (Yiddish saying).

By 1600 the Ashkenazim were numerically and culturally the most significant Jewish community in the world. An independent Jewish "Council of the Four Lands" served the semi-autonomous Kehilla (community). Besides their religious commitment, the communities of Central and Eastern Europe were united by the Yiddish language. Yiddish is mainly based on a dialect of low German, mixed with Hebrew and local vocabulary. It is written in Hebrew script. It spread eastward with the Jewish population. Yiddish became virtually the exclusive language of European Jews for some 500 years.

In the mid-17th century, the Cossacks of the Ukraine and the local Polish peasantry revolted against the feudal conditions imposed by the Polish overlords. The Jews bore the brunt of their murderous fury. Hundreds of thousands were massacred. Church persecution and local enmity were a constant threat. Many Jews moved west, renewing former settlements in Germany and France.

The destruction of society, the economy and the civil authority as Poland was partitioned by its neighboring powers, left the Jews scattered and powerless. However, their numbers continued to increase and they began to settle newly opened territories such as the Ukraine. There too they faced pogroms and economic restrictions.

Against this dark social background there developed mass false Messianic movements, raising people's expectations of imminent redemption and leaving them broken when they failed to materialize.

In the mid-1700's a spiritual renaissance developed. In the southern provinces of Poland the new movement of Chassidus, based on the inspiring teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, attracted the masses. In Lithuania, to the north, the Vilna Gaon - Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - redeveloped the Yeshiva system, leading a return to rigorous Torah scholarship, countering the populist Chassidic movement.

By 1800, with the breakup of the Polish state, most Jews found themselves located in the Pale of Settlement, an area stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, encompassing much of Eastern Europe. Jews from Russia were moved into the Pale. Physical restrictions were accompanied by decrees of taxation, conscription, and economic limitations.

But, as in ancient Egypt, "as they were oppressed so did they multiply." By 1900, near 5 million Jews were living in the Pale of Settlement.

In Western Europe the winds of social revolution and liberalism were transforming the status of Jews from an oppressed community. The so-called "Enlightenment" movement, promoting secular learning, cultural integration and reform of religion, caused many to assimilate. At the same time, Eastern European Jewry generally maintained its religious orthodoxy and cultural integrity.

In the 20th century, Jewish activism in political movements - socialism, communism, and Zionism challenged traditional Jewish society and values.

The terrible attempted "Final Solution" caused 6 million of Europe's Jews to be annihilated, destroying European Jewish civilization of ten centuries.

In the wake of the Holocaust, the survivors of European Jewry formed the core population at the formation of the State of Israel. Forty percent of Israel's early immigrants were Holocaust survivors. Today, half the Israeli population is of Ashkenazic descent. Of World Jewry's 13 million-plus souls, 70% are of Ashkenazic heritage.

The Sefardim

Sefard is the Hebrew word for Spain. The original Sefardim were Jews who dwelt in Spain. The early Jews in Spain shared a common culture with the Jews of North Africa, the Mahgreb - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, etc. Many Spanish Jews fled there to avoid Christian persecution. The term Sefardim has come to include all Jewish communities that developed under Moslem rule and society. The category also includes the Mizrachim - the Oriental communities located on the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East.

North Africa experienced significant Jewish settlement in the 9th and 10th centuries. Great rabbinic leadership established Torah centers, becoming independent of the former center of Babylonia. Early great Sefardic rabbis include Rabbenu Chananel, who wrote a pioneering commentary on the Talmud and Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi of Fez, Morocco, whose early codification of the Talmud became a foundation of halacha. Moshe Maimonides, (Rambam), the greatest Jewish thinker of his age (1138-1204), lived in Spain and later in Egypt.

Jews of the early second millennium saw the west as a land of opportunity. Economic possibilities and a moderate Islamic regime appealed to many, especially from the Babylonian community, which was in decline from the age of the Geonim. Newly established religious centers and leadership allowed immigration without fear of compromising observance.

The 10th and 11th centuries were a "Golden Age" for Jewry in Moslem Spain and North Africa. Jews were among the cultural leaders and intellectuals of the period. They excelled at science and medicine, literature and philosophy, and commerce.

The Jews of Spain were caught in the bloody religious struggle between Islam and Christianity. The ascension of the fanatical Almohads of Morocco in 1141 ended the relatively tolerant period which allowed Jewish communal development. Many Jews fled the sword of Islam north to Christian Spain where they found temporary respite and advanced in social status.

Jews under Islam were given Dhimi status - made to feel second-class but protected as "people of the book." Often separate neighborhoods - the mehilla - housed all the town's Jews. Depending upon the fanaticism or tolerance of the particular ruling faction was the fate of the Jews. Though riots, murders and discrimination were not uncommon, the level of communal violence against Jews never reached that of Christian Europe.

With the strengthening of the Catholic Church in the 1400's, Spanish Jews faced persecution, theological disputations, forced conversions and expulsion. Many Jews outwardly converted to survive. To reinforce the sincerity of these conversos - also called marranos - the Church launched the Inquisition, using torture and death as a means of religious persuasion.

In the midst of this fundamentalist frenzy the Catholic king issued orders of expulsion to all the Jews of Spain, on the 9th of Av, 1492. Many found temporary refuge in neighboring Portugal, but there too they were compelled to undergo forced conversion and later, expulsion.

With the terrible expulsions, Spanish Jewry scattered to various locations. In Europe they settled primarily in the Netherlands or Italy. Many returned to Islamic lands of North Africa and the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire was particularly welcoming, and many Jews settled in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans.

The port of Salonica in Greece became a center of the transplanted Sefardic culture. A Sefardic Diaspora was created - a dispersion within a dispersion, looking to Eretz Yisrael as its homeland, but having been indelibly impressed by its centuries of sojourn in Spain. As many as 250,000 Jews migrated in this period of the 1500's.

The language of the majority of these Sefardic exiles was Ladino - Judeo-Spanish. The language is comprised of Hebrew and Turkish vocabulary with a Spanish base. The script originally was Hebrew.

As a consequence of the Spanish exile, many particularly spiritually minded Jews returned to the land of Israel. The community in Safed produced the great Kabbalist known as the Ariz'l and the great Halachist Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the "set table of Jewish laws"). This work became the standard for all World Jewry, accepted with annotations by the Ashkenazic community as well.

The Moslem world had until the Middle Ages been the vibrant heart of World Jewry, but with the decline of their host countries, the Jews of the region also declined. As late as the 16th century World Jewry had been divided roughly 50/50 between the Sefardim and Ashkenazim. By 1900 Sefardim constituted less than l0% of World Jewry, mainly as a result of a low birth rate and negative immigration into their communities.

With the defeat and dismantling of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after World War I, many Jews emigrated from Greece and Turkey.

The Holocaust reached Sefardic Jewry in Holland, Italy and the Balkans. The Jews of the major Greek city of Salonica, which at one time was nearly half Jewish, were totally annihilated.

With the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Arab enmity that it enraged, the Jews of the Moslem world, long tolerated, were in great danger. A major rescue movement was launched to bring these communities to Israel. Thus exile communities which had lasted for two millennia came to an end in a few short years with their massive immigration to Israel.

In Iraq (Babylonia), where there were 150,000 Jews in 1948, as few as 100 live there today. In Morocco, a community of 300,000 in 1948, there are now a few thousand. Algeria had 115,000 and Tunisia had 100,000; now there remain a few hundred, mostly elderly Jews.

Today, in Israel, half of the Jewish population is of Sefardic heritage. Other significant Sefardic communities continue in France, the United States and South America.

In modern Israel the Tribe distinctions have somewhat blurred in the Israeli melting pot. Sefardi-Ashkenazi marriages are common. Most communities, however, maintain their unique cultural customs. This is evident also in the maintenance of religious customs and practices.


The Tribes of Israel have returned and in a big way. The proof - a visit to modern-day Israel.

In 1900 there were approximately 50,000 Jews living in what was to become the State of Israel. In 1948, there were 630,000 Jews. The Jewish population of Israel in 2000 is approximately 5.1 million.

The return of the Jewish People to their ancient homeland after surviving a difficult exile of over 2,000 years is unique in human history.

The re-created Jewish State constitutes a rebirth of the Jewish Nation on its land. It created the opportunity for the amazing ingathering of Jews from all over the world, and provided a needed refuge for persecuted Jewish communities and individuals.

The ancient exile communities of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Yemen have largely all immigrated to Israel. The Jews at the four corners of the earth have also returned. The Kurdish Jews, Bukharians, Indian Jews, and all the other groups are now found in Israel.

The Ethiopian Jews have been settled in Israel as full citizens. The Shinlung - Bene Menashe also have a growing community in Israel.

Amazingly, the past few years has seen the release and return of Russian Jewry to Israel - an immigration of nearly one million people.

Both Ashkenazim and Sefardim are alive and well in Israel. The Israel experience has blended the communities, yet each maintains its unique heritage.

The prophecy and the promise of exile and return have been fulfilled before our eyes. The descendants of the ancient Hebrews are back. The Tribes of Israel have come home, and the process is continuing.

There is another process of return which is meant to accompany the physical return of the Tribes of Israel to their Promised Land - that is a process of spiritual return.

Jewish identity, preserved for centuries, is being forfeited by many modern Jews for lack of Jewish knowledge or feeling. A heritage and a people which have survived history and contributed so much to the world - as promised and as prophesized - deserves a serious hearing.

Today's lost tribes of Israel are not in Afghanistan or the Far East; they are the Jews getting lost in the suburbs, in the universities, and in the corporate chase.

A movement of spiritual return to Jewish roots and values is needed to help prevent these Jews and their descendants from becoming lost from the Tribe.


SOURCE #1: Kings II 17:9-12 - Taking Away the Tribes

"And it came to pass in the fourth year of king Hizqiyyahu, which was the seventh year of Hoshea son of Ela king of Yisra'el, that Shalman'eser king of Ashur came up against Shomeron, and besieged it. And at the end of three years they took it: in the sixth year of Hizqiyya, that is the ninth year of Hoshea king of Yisra'el, Shomeron was taken. And the king of Ashur did carry away Yisra'el to Ashur, and put them in Halah and in Havor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Maday: because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed His covenant, and all that Moshe the servant of the Lord commanded, and would not hear them, nor do them."

SOURCE #2: Chronicles I 5:25-26

"And they transgressed against the God of their fathers, and went astray after the gods of the peoples of the land, whom God destroyed before them. And the God of Yisra'el stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Ashur, and the spirit of Tiglat-pilneser king of Ashur, and he carried them away, namely the Re'uveni, and the Gadi, and the half-tribe of Menashe, and brought them to Halah, and Havor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, to this day."

SOURCE #3: Deuteronomy 29:27 "As it is this day…"

"And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day."

SOURCE #4: Jeremiah 31: 6-9 Call Ingathering, Scatter / Gather "

… announce, praise, and say, O Lord, save Thy people, the remnant of Yisra'el. Behold I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the ends of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travails with child together: a great company shall return there. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, in which they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Yisra'el, and Efrayim is my firstborn. Hear the word of the Lord, O you nations, and declare it in the isles far off, and say, He that scattered Yisra'el will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd keeps his flock."

SOURCE #5: Ezekiel 37:19-22, 25 Gather Israel from Nations, Dwell in Israel Forever "

…Thus says the Lord God: Behold I will take the stick of Yosef, which is in the hand of Efrayim, and the tribes of Yisra'el his companions, and will put them and it together with the stick of Yehuda to form one stick, and they shall be one in my hand. And the sticks on which you write shall be in your hand before their eyes. And say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the children of Yisra'el from among the nations, into which they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: and I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Yisra'el … And they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Ya'aqov my servant, in which your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, and their children, and their children's children for ever…"

SOURCE #6: Ezekiel 39:28 Into Exile / Back to Land "

… I am the Lord their God, who caused them to be led into exile among the nations: but I have gathered them into their own land, and have left none of them there any more."

SOURCE #7: Isaiah 11:11-12 Recover Remnant, Gather Four Corners

"And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set His Hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, that shall be left, from Ashur, and from Mitzrayim, from Patros, and from Kush, and from Elam, and from Shin'ar, and from Hamat, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up a banner for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Yisra'el, and gather together the dispersed of Yehuda from the four corners of the earth."

SOURCE #8: Isaiah 27:13 Return Lost in Ashur, Mitzrayim to Jerusalem

"And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown, and they shall come who were lost in the land of Ashur, and the outcasts in the land of Mitzrayim, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Yerushalayim."

SOURCE #9: Isaiah 42:5-7 Bring Seed from East, West, North, South "

… I will bring your seed from the east, and gather you from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring My sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; every one that is called by My name…"

SOURCE #10: Isaiah 49:11 Come From North, West, Siam

"Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim."

SOURCE #11: Jeremiah 3:18 Return - Yehuda and Yisrael

"In those days the house of Yehuda shall walk with the house of Yisra'el, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance to your fathers."

SOURCE #12: Zachariah 10:9-10 Bring Back / Return to Land

"And I will sow them among the peoples: and they shall remember me in far countries; and they shall live with their children, and shall return. And I will bring them back out of the land of Mitzrayim, and gather them out of Ashur, and I will bring them into the land of Gil'ad and Levanon…"


The Exiled and the Redeemed - Itzhak Ben Zvi
The Mystery of the Lost Tribes - Yehoshua Benjamin
The Thirteenth Gate - Tudor Parfit
Lost Tribes in Assyria - Rabbi Avihail
Historical Atlas of the Jewish People - E. Barnovi
Encyclopedia Judaica
DNA Chain of Tradition - Y. Kleiman - Jewish Action, Winter 1999
Decoding the Priesthood - Jerusalem Report - May 10, 1999
The Lost Tribes of Israel - Nova, PBS
Quest for the Lost Tribes - S. Jacobovici - Documentary Film


¨ Map of 12 Tribes in Israel
¨ World Map of exile communities
¨ Names of 12 Tribes on High Priest's breastplate
¨ Faces of various Jews
¨ Photos of ancient sites, Jews from far-away places

The Tribe