How did the Ten Lost Tribes come to be lost?

November 30, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. How did the Ten Lost Tribes come to be lost?

A. They were not lost, only displaced. This was Assyrian policy – move conquered peoples from one part of the empire to another, making them so busy settling down that they were unlikely to revolt.

When Assyria defeated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, most of the inhabitants of the kingdom were transported elsewhere and replaced by heathen settlers (II Kings chapters 15-18). In their place a mixed multitude was transported to the plains and mountains of Israel.

However, many Biblical passages prophesy that the tribes of Israel will come back to the Holy Land, and so their descendants must still exist in some way.

The Apocrypha believes that they do: Tobit, for example, is identified as belonging to the tribe of Naphtali. The Midrash says that some of the “lost” tribes are on this side of the river Sambation, some on the opposite side and others near Antioch.

Various writers and messianic pretenders thought they had found the tribes in places as varied as North Arabia, India, Abyssinia, Afghanistan, Japan and even Eastern Europe and South America.

Those who favour the Indian theory think the ten tribes were the original Hindus and Buddhists. Adherents of the Eastern European theory insist that since the ten tribes were the Karaite sect whose ancestors had been in the Crimea since the 7th century BCE, they could not, unlike the Jews who suffered from Christian antisemitism, be blamed for the death of Jesus.

All sorts of people consider themselves Children of Israel, and a great deal of pseudo-scholarship has worked out that almost every human group has a link to the ten tribes. This kind of “scholarship” even asserts that the word “British” is really Hebrew, a combination of two words – “b’rit” (covenant) and “ish” (man).

Normative Jews are unlikely to claim descent from the Lost Ten Tribes. They believe the tribes transported by the Assyrians have long since merged into their surroundings and are no longer identifiable.


Q. Why does Psalm 137 (“By the Waters of Babylon”) say, “Let my right hand wither”? Why not the left hand?

A. Biblical thinking regarded the right hand as stronger and more normative.

Psalm 16 says “Because God is at my right hand I shall not be moved”. God Himself was thought of metaphorically as right-handed; the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15) says, “Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious”.

Being left-handed was regarded as a handicap. Not only in Biblical thinking but in many cultures. That is why the Latin word for left is “sinister”. The right is “dexter”: if you are dexterous you are seen as having a lot of right-handed skills.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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