What Happened To The Lost Tribes of Israel?
Dear Jew in the City-
I’m wondering if there is more information about the lost 12 tribes? Which tribe would Ashkenazi Jews come from?
Thanks for your question. First off, there are 10 “lost” Tribes, not 12. There were 12 Tribes in total (kind of), not all of which were “lost.” Second, answering your question really requires a refresher course in Biblical history.
There were actually 13 Tribes. Eleven of these were named for 11 of Jacob’s sons, whose descendants constituted the populations of these Tribes. As per lyrics from the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which is easier to recite than looking them up in their actual order of birth), “Reuben was the oldest of the children of Israel, with Simeon and Levi the next in line. Naftali and Issachar, with Asher and Dan. Zebulon and Gad brought the total to nine. (Jacob! Jacob and sons!) Benjamin and Judah, which leaves only one….”
Jacob may have had only one more son, Joseph, but there were two more Tribes: Ephraim and Menashe. These were named for Joseph’s sons (Jacob’s grandsons), each of whom was the progenitor of his own Tribe. A firstborn son normally receives a double portion but Reuben forfeited this when he disrupted his father’s marital arrangements (in Genesis 35). Jacob then gave the double portion to Joseph, who was the firstborn of his mother, Rachel.
So, here we have 13 Tribes – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Naftali, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Zebulon, Gad, Benjamin, Judah, Ephraim and Menashe. However, we only ever count 12 of them. Typically, this is done by omitting Levi. This is because the Tribe of Levi did not have a territory in Israel. Their job was to work in the Temple and they were supported by various tithes and offerings, as is explicit in Deuteronomy 18:1-2. Sometimes, however, Levi is included in the count. When this is the case, the Tribes of Ephraim and Menashe are typically combined into a single unit comprising all the descendants of Joseph. (These are the most common ways but there are others. For example, I Chronicles 27 lists the Tribal heads. This list includes Levi and it also counts both Ephraim and Menashe. In fact, it counts Menashe twice because the territory of Menashe was split geographically on opposite sides of the Jordan with a different leader for each section! Nevertheless, the count of 12 Tribes is maintained by omitting Gad and Asher.)
So, while we always speak of 12 Tribes, there were actually 13. As noted, Levi didn’t have any territory of their own; they lived in various cities throughout the 12 territories though they were largely concentrated near Jerusalem because that’s where the Temple was.
After King Solomon died, his son Rehoboam was approached by the people demanding tax relief. He decided to show them who was boss by refusing their demand. This backfired because ten of the 12 Tribes holding territory seceded and formed their own country. (This included Reuben, Simeon, Naftali, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Zebulon, Gad, Ephraim and Menashe.) The new, northern kingdom made up of these ten Tribes took the name Israel. The southern Kingdom – which included Levi, Benjamin and Judah – retained the Davidic dynasty, as well as the Temple in Jerusalem. They took the name Judah. (This all happened around 797 BCE, as described in I Kings 12.) The two kingdoms were initially at war. They eventually became allies but they never reunited.
The northern kingdom of the ten Tribes was “lost” when they were conquered by Assyria. This didn’t happen all at once; it occurred in waves. The Tribes on the other sides of the Jordan – Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe – were the first to go, around 566 BCE, as detailed in I Chronicles 5. Zebulon and Naftali were exiled by Assyria around 562 BCE, as described in II Kings 15. The rest of the northern kingdom was exiled around 548 BCE, as seen in II Kings 17. The modus operandi of Assyria was to relocate conquered peoples, mixing the populations in foreign lands to preclude the likelihood of uprising and rebellion. This was how the ten Tribes got “lost.” (It was also how we ended up with the quasi-Jewish “Samaritans” who created so much trouble in the second Temple period.)
God has foretold through His prophets that the lost Tribes would eventually be restored and the nation reunited. For example, in Ezekiel 37, God has that prophet write the names of the two kingdoms on two boards, which He miraculously merges into a single board. This is also the theme of the song U’vau Ha’Ovdim, whose words come from Isaiah 27:13, “It will come to pass on that day that a great shofar will be blown and those who were lost in the land of Assyria will come, and those who were dispersed in the land of Egypt, and they shall worship Hashem on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” “Those who were lost in the land of Assyria” refers to the ten Tribes of the northern kingdom, while “those who were dispersed in the land of Egypt” refers to the southern kingdom of Judah, which was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar around 432 BCE, the survivors escaping to Egypt (II Kings 24-25).
Okay, so all the Tribes were lost except for Benjamin, Judah and Levi, right? Eh… it’s not so clear. Imagine if the entire population of the United States were exiled except for one small section: the Eastern seaboard. That means that Minnesota, Arizona, North Dakota and Ohio are all gone. Now think about the cities that remained. Don’t you think that a lot of people from Minnesota, Arizona, North Dakota and Ohio might have been visiting New York, Boston, Florida and the District of Columbia when the exile occurred? Similarly, Jerusalem was where the Temple stood. Not only is it reasonable to assume that representatives of all 13 Tribes were in Jerusalem (or elsewhere in Judah) when the ten Tribes were “lost,” it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise! (Disagree? See Metzudas David on I Kings 12:23, who backs me up on this, albeit in a different context.)
Unfortunately, our genealogical records took quite a beating in exile and we lost reliable family histories with the result that, for the most part, we no longer know our Tribes. Accordingly, Jews now come in three “flavors”: kohanim (priests) and Leviim (Levites – both from the Tribe of Levi), and Yisroelim (Israelites – i.e., everybody else). Any other differentiation of population, such as Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Yemenite, Yekke, Chasidishe, etc. is the result of further migrations that occurred over the centuries since the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 CE. But all of those populations contain descendants of all the types of Jews – kohanim and Leviim descended from Levi, and Yisroelim – largely but probably not exclusively descended from Judah and Benjamin.
Over the years, many outrageous claims have been made in attempts to identify various groups as descendants of the lost Tribes. “The British are descended from the lost Tribes,” “Native Americans are descended from the lost Tribes,” “the Japanese are descended from the lost Tribes,” etc. There is scant evidence to support these theories. (“The British get their name from the brit” – i.e., the covenant. Uh… no.)
That’s not to say that there have never been more credible claims. In the ninth century, the Jews of Babylonia, Tunisia and the Iberian Peninsula were visited by Eldad haDani (“Eldad from the Tribe of Dan), a traveler who claimed to come from a Jewish community in East Africa populated by the descendants of Dan, Asher, Gad and Naftali. (“What do you mean we were lost? We thought you were lost!”) There is a difference of opinion as to how legitimate he may or may not have been.
Even nowadays there are such claims that should be taken seriously. Many believe that the Bene Israel of Ethiopia (formerly referred to as “Falashas”) are descended from the Tribe of Dan and that the Bene Menashe of India are, as their name implies, descended from Menashe. These claims had enough halachic credence that Israeli chief rabbis recognized the populations in question as being of Jewish descent.
So that’s the long and short on the “lost” Tribes. God has told us that they would eventually be restored and that may already be a work in progress. In the messianic era, everyone’s Tribal affiliation will be clarified prophetically. (This last point is made by Maimonides in Hilchos Melachim 12:3; see there for the Rambam’s Biblical sources.)
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
 I have made an observation that the numbers 12 and 13 are often fungible in this way. (a) How many months are in the Hebrew year? Twelve. A leap year has 13 but instead of a unique month, we get an extra month of Adar, so 13 is still 12. (b) The name “Shemoneh Esrei” means 18 but there are 19 blessings in that prayer; one was added later to the middle section of 12 blessings, so 13 is considered 12, at least as far as the name of the prayer is concerned. (c) What’s the age of majority in Jewish law? Either 12 or 13, depending on if one is a girl or a boy. The significance of this phenomenon, however, eludes me.
 Readers who are more familiar with the books of the early Prophets may be aware that the Tribe of Shimon did not have one contiguous territory. Rather, they had cities scattered throughout the territory of Yehuda. The question therefore arises as to how, exactly, they seceded with the rest of the ten Tribes. Rashi on I Chronicles 4:31 suggests that the residents of Shimon were forced out of Yehuda’s territory during the reign of King David, long before the schism that divided the nation. On the other hand, Tosfos Yom Tov infers from Mishna Sotah 8:1 that Shimon only broke away from Yehuda politically; they remained in the same location geographically. (I find this latter position more difficult to understand given Tanach’s description of the blockades established by King Rechavam to keep the two nations separated physically.)
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