The Nazi Holocaust of 1939-45 wiped out a third of world Jewry; yet in many respects, the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of northern Israel in 721 B.C.E. was equally cataclysmic. Ten of Israel’s historic twelve tribes were lost to history.
The ten tribes were each named after sons or grandsons of Jacob (who was also known as Israel). They were Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon and Zebulun.
Each tribe was allocated a particular region of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). Together with Judah and Benjamin, the 12 tribes constituted a confederacy, then a united kingdom under David and Solomon. Biblical commentators ascribe each tribe with unique characteristics, often derived from the personality of its founder.
In c.930 B.C.E. the ten tribes separated from Judah and Benjamin to form the northern Kingdom of Israel. In c.721 B.C.E., Shalmaneser V, King of Assyria, conquered the Kingdom and exiled its inhabitants. This story is recounted in both the Bible and the annals of Assyrian King Sargon II. (Those few from the ten tribes who remained probably became the Samaritans, a tiny sect still found in Israel).
The Bible suggests that their banishment was punishment for breaking God’s holy laws. The loss of the ten tribes arguably marks the first Diaspora, except that these tribes never (officially) returned to Judaism, or Israel.
Subsequent Jewish legends tried to explain their fate. Many tales talk of a fierce river of water and stones, the Sambatyon, or Sabbath River, beyond which survivors built a new eastern Jewish kingdom. In time, these legends even entered popular Arabic and Christian mythology.
The 9th century explorer, Eldad Ha-Dani, claimed to have discovered the sons of Moses after crossing the Sambatyon in Abbysinia (Ethiopia).
The Ethiopian Jewish community (Beta Yisrael), also called Falash Mura, claims descent from the lost tribe of Dan.
The 16th century false prophet, David Reubeni, allegedly came from a kingdom of the lost tribes. The Dutch Jew, Manasseh ben Israel (1604-57) used the lost tribes legend to persuade Oliver Cromwell to readmit Jews to England.
Some say that Yemenite Jews and the Bene Yisrael Jews of Bombay, India, grew out of remnants of the lost tribes. Most of the Yemenite Jewish community immigrated to Israel after 1948.
Currently, the Shimlung of Burma want to return to Israel; as does another north Indian group claiming to be the lost tribe of Manasseh. Other candidates for lost tribe status include the Pathans of Afghanistan, the Igbo of Nigeria, native American Indians, even the British (especially in Cornwall), the Japanese and Russians!