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The Ten Lost Tribes: Overview

Of the first things that come to mind when thinking about Moshiach, is the Return of the Ten Lost Tribes who were exiled and separated from the rest of Jewry, thousands of years ago.

The Ten Tribes were exiled during the First Temple Era - over 2,000 years ago, and have been separated from the rest of Jewry ever since. But ultimately, they will be redeemed, and join the rest of Jewry - at the time of Moshiach.

This essay addresses the various opinions expressed in the Talmud regarding the fate of the Ten Tribes, and the big question: Will the Ten Tribes actually return?

***

Let's start from the beginning:

Over 1,000 years before the Ten Tribes were exiled, Jacob's beloved son Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers - and was sold as a slave. Ultimately, after many years of separation, he was reunited with his father and brothers. The Torah describes how when Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers "Joseph could not restrain himself . . and He cried in a loud voice..." (Genesis, 45:1-2)

This phenomenon was going to repeat itself on a much larger scale - with the children of Joseph along with the another nine tribes.

(Joseph represents the Ten Tribes, since the Ten Tribes' capital was Mt. Ephraim [1]. (Ephraim was Joseph's son)).

This reunion will also be a tearful one, "With cries they will come, and with mercy I will lead them" (Jeremiah 31:8) [2].

The Prophet Ezekiel (33: 19:22) speaks of this reunion:

"I am taking the rod of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel - his friends, and I will put on them the rod of Judah, and I will make them into one rod, and they will be one in my hand . . Now I am taking the sons of Israel from the nations to which they went, and I will gather them from around and bring them to their land. And I will make them into one nation, in the land, in the mountains of Israel. And one king will rule over them, and no longer will they be two nations, and they will not separated into two kingdoms anymore."

I.e. until now there has been separation within Jewry. First in the form of two kingdoms and later they were separated completely. When Moshiach comes, G-d will make us "into one nation and no longer will we be divided into two nations."

Rabbi Akivah: The Ten Tribes will not return

Although it seems so clear that the Ten Tribes will return, when we take a look at the sources, we see that it's not quite as simple as it seems.

Let us quote the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (110b):

"The Ten Tribes will not return as it says (Nitzovim 29:8) "And he threw them to a different land like this day". Just as a day passes and will never return, they too will be exiled never to return, these are the words of Rabbi Akivah.

"Rabbi Eliezer says, just like a day is followed by darkness, and the light later returns. So too, although it will become "dark" for the Ten Tribes, G-d will ultimately take them out of their darkness."

Thus, we have two opinions regarding the destiny of the Ten Tribes. The Talmud cites an additional view which is one of the opinions that their destiny is dependent on their behavior, "Rabbi Shimon ben Judah of Kfar Ako says in the name of Rabbi Shimon: 'If their behavior continues as it is today ("this day") they will not return [3], if they repent, they will indeed return.

Representatives from Each Tribe

Let us begin with an analysis of Rabbi Akivah's opinion that the Ten Tribes will forever be lost. Such an opinion demands explanation: If Jewry will consist entirely of the remaining two tribes (Judah & Benjamin) How can the verses refer to the union of the "tree of Judah" and the "tree of Joseph".

In addition, doesn't the prophet Ezekiel speak of dividing the Land of Israel among 13 tribes?

Rabbi Dan Isaac Abarbanel explains (Yeshuos Meshicho 1:4):

At Rabbi Akivah's time the Ten Tribes have been lost for over 600 years and there wasn't the slightest hint that they still existed.

Consider: If the Ten Tribes have still remained loyal to Judaism, why haven't they sent at least one messenger to Jerusalem during Temple Era - to verify the rumors that the Jews have returned to their land and rebuilt the Temple?!

This argument convinced Rabbi Akivah that the Ten Tribes must have assimilated into the pagan nations and would no longer be considered part of the Jewry.

And in regard to the prophecies which imply that all the tribes will exist in the Messianic Era, Rabbi Akivah might argue that while most the Ten Tribes were exiled and will never return, some may have escaped and live among us today. Thus we will have representatives of all the missing Ten Tribes, and the prophecies will be fulfilled through them.

The Halacha: The Ten Tribes will return

After discussing Rabbi Akivah's view, let us discuss the opposing view of Rabbi Eliezer (that is accepted as Halacha) - that the Ten Tribes will return.

[A Talmudic sage even used the sharp expression "Rabbi Akivah has lost his piousness" - when referring to R. Akivah's harsh statement about the Ten Tribes. Thus, the Halacha remains as Rabbi Eliezer - that the Ten Tribes will ultimately return.]

The Talmud explains that this view is based on the verse (Isaiah 27:13) "and it will be on that day, a great Shofar will be blown, and the lost will come from the land of Ashur" - this verse refers to the Ten Tribes who were exiled to the land of Ashur.

One point still has to be clarified: Amos (5:1) said in reference to the Ten Tribes: "Hear this thing, upon which I am mourning: The Virgin of Israel fell, and will never get up". How would R. Eliezer explain the words "It will never get up?"

A possible explanation is that it will not "get up" as an independent entity, but it will get up as an entity totally incumbent to the kingdom of Judah.

Underground Tunnels; Mt. of Olives; and the Three Resorts

The Midrash tells us that the Ten Tribes were exiled to three places: Some were exiled to the land behind the Sambatyon River. Another group was exiled to a distant land behind the River (this land was twice the distance from Israel than the first Land); the 3rd group was "swallowed in Rabbeslah."

The Midrash then describes the manner in which some of the 3rd Group (who were "swallowed") will return:

"G-d will make them underground tunnels and they will travel through them, until they reach the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. G-d will stand on the mount causing it to split, and the Ten Tribes will emerge from within." (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 469)

Obviously, this Midrash is not to be taken literally, it rather alludes to the severe spiritual exile which this group is now enduring and the spiritual transformation which they will undergo when Moshiach comes:

The Ten Tribes were taken to exile and "were swallowed", i.e. they have totally forgotten their Jewish Identity, as if it has been "swallowed" by some external force. Their energy remains only in potential form. When Moshiach comes, G-d will take them through tunnels (symbolizing the process of refinement) and will lead them to the Mount of Olives (a mountain which was (originally) dedicated to the growing of fruit - a symbol of utilization of potential energy. Finally the mountain will split, and they will emerge - their Jewish identity will reemerge from the present state of "potential" and will be fully realized.

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