The Biblical Sources
After the death of King Solomon (d.928 BCE), his kingdom was divided in two: the Kingdom of Israel, and the Kingdom of Judah. The territory of the Kingdom of Israel covered most of the central and northern Land of Israel and was inhabited by descendants of ten of the original twelve tribes that conquered the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua: Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zevulun. The Kingdom of Judah was focused around Jerusalem and the Judean hills and was home to the remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and in line with the general policy of the Assyrians, its population was deported to other regions of the empire. The Ten Tribes are assumed to have assimilated into other peoples and tribes inside the Assyrian empire, or were incorporated into the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, when they too were deported to Babylonia, following the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE (Ezekiel: 37:21-23).
The assimilation of the Ten Tribes of Israel resulted in a belief that their location will eventually be discovered at some future time, and that they will be reunited with the remnants of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, who returned to the Land of Israel when the Babylonia was destroyed by the Persians. This belief had its roots in the interpretation of some biblical texts, notably I Chronicles (5:26) and numerous prophecies (Isaiah 11:11-12, inter alia) as well some Apocryphical references (II Esdras 13:39-50).
The Talmudic Period
The fate of the Ten Tribes was also discussed by the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Opinions differed - Rabbi Akiba believed that the Ten Tribes would not return, and Rabbi Eliezer argued that the Ten Tribes would (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:3; Shabbat 147b; Numbers Rabba 9:7). The supposed location of the Ten Lost Tribes also became a subject of much speculation. A legend formed that claimed that the Ten Lost Tribes live in a region situated beyond the Sambatyon River that flows with rocks for six days of the week and stops on Shabbat. This is found in classical Jewish texts (Genesis Rabba 73:6; Sanhedrin 10:6/29b) and is also mentioned by Josephus Flavius (Wars: 7:96-97) and the Greek author Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis 31:24).
The Middle Ages
The tale of the Ten Lost Tribes prompted many explorers to actively search for their location. Their return to the Land of Israel was recognized as one of the missions that would be accomplished in the Messianic days and a sign of world salvation. During the Middle Ages Eldad ha-Dani, a 9th century Jewish traveler who claimed descent from the Tribe of Dan asserted that the Ten Lost Tribes are located "beyond the rivers of Abyssinia" on the bank of the Sambatyon River. Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th century Jewish traveler from Spain, declared that the Jews of Persia believe that four tribes - Asher, Dan, Naphtali, and Zevulun, live beyond the river Gozan in the towns of Nissabur, a mountainous country twenty days eastward journey from Persia. R. Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro in northern Italy, a pilgrim to Jerusalem at the end of the 15th century, noted that according to information he received from the Jews in Aden, as well as from Muslim traders, the lost tribes live beyond the Sambatyon River which can be reached after a fifty day's journey into the desert from Aden.
The interest in the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes received a new impetus from growth of Jewish mysticism after the 16th century, including various messianic movements. The search for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel drew renewed interest with the discoveries of trade routes and subsequent European contact with the east. R. Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi of Jerusalem, in a letter from 1528 describes the Jews of Ethiopia as descendants from the tribes of Dan and Gad while in a letter to R. Israel Ashkenazi of Jerusalem there is mention of a man claiming to belong to the Ten Lost Tribes and who testified that the Ten Lost Tribes do not have any knowledge of the Oral Law. Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol (c.1451-c.1525), the first Jewish author to mention the newly discovered American continent, dedicated a chapter of his tractate to the subject of the Ten Lost Tribes - (Igeret Orhot Olam, Venice, 1586). In the 17th century, R. Manasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam (1604-1657) in his book Mikve Israel (Hope of Israel, London, 1652) quotes the testimony of the Portuguese crypto-Jew, Aaron Levi (known as Antonio de Montezinos), who claimed to have encountered during his travels to South America (Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela) Indian tribes practicing some Jewish rituals and who allegedly were descendants of the tribes of Reuben and Levi. Manasseh ben Israel used the legend of the lost tribes in pleading successfully for the admission of Jews into England during Oliver Cromwell's regime.
The Modern Period
The 19th century brought a renewed interest into the Ten Lost Tribes. Joseph Israel (1818-1864), a Romanian-born Jewish traveler who changed his name to Benjamin the Second, traveled between 1845 to 1859, from Istanbul, Turkey, to Egypt, Syria, Land of Israel, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and after 1859 to North America, searching and inquiring everywhere for the Ten Lost Tribes. He collected valuable information about the way of life and traditions of Jewish communities he met along the way. Among them were the Bene Israel in India who in his opinion were descendants of the Ten Tribes.
Moses ben Isaac Edrehi (1774-c.1842), a Moroccan-born rabbi authored two works dealing with the quest for the Ten Lost Tribes. Ma'aseh Nissim (originally published in Hebrew and German in Amsterdam in 1809), is a mythical description of the Sambatyon River, along with An historical account of the ten tribes, settled beyond the river Sambatyon in the East with many other curious matters relating to the state of the Israelites in various parts of the world, published in London in 1836.
The Mystery Deepens
The search for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel has been undertaken by Jews, Christians and Muslims, in practically every corner of the earth. This search turned into a theme that has reoccurred occasionally with many Christian travelers, missionaries, authors, and explorers.
Traditions and legends regarding an assumed descent from the Ten Lost Tribes can be found among various Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Contacts that were established with Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Asia and Africa in the modern ages, has led to an increased curiosity into the origin and traditions of some communities living at the outskirts of the traditional area of settlement of Jewish communities during the Middle Ages and early modern times. For instance, the Jews of Bukhara, a region that at the beginning of the 19th century came under Russian domination, received a letter in 1802 from the Jews of Shklov, Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, asking them whether they were descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes.
One of the traditions of the Bene Israel community of India claims that this community descends from the tribe of Judah, while according to another tradition, the Bene Israel are descendants from the tribe of Zebulun. The Jews of Cochin, India, who themselves do not hold a belief in an ancient Israelite origin, were occasionally described as descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes by early travelers, Jews and non-Jews alike, who visited them in the early 19th century.
In the Caucasus traditions and beliefs concerning possible origin from the Ten Lost Tribes have been documented among the Jews of Georgia, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
In the late 18th century some members of the Karaite community of Crimea tried to prove that they are descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes and that they settled in that country already in the 7th century BCE.
Perhaps the best example of traditions upholding beliefs of an origin from the Ten Lost Tribes can be found among the Jews of Ethiopia. The Beta Israel community of Ethiopia regarded themselves as descendants from the tribe of Dan. It should be pointed out that when Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, recognized the Jewishness of the Jews of Ethiopia in 1973, he too emphasized that they were descendants of the lost tribe of Dan.
The story of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel is also a recurrent theme of the folklore of numerous Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Legends describing the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes, people who either belong to them or met them, the location and the features of the Sambatyon River as well as a belief in their eventual return to the Land of Israel are found among the traditions of the Jews of Morocco, Yemen, and Eastern Europe, among others.
The major events in the story of the Jewish people in the 20th century added a new impetus to the quest for the Ten Lost Tribes. Increased migration of Jews to all corners of the earth, the Holocaust, the Establishment of the State of Israel and its subsequent absorption of mass Jewish immigration from all countries were considered by many as episodes of the Divine plan for the final redemption and salvation. According to this view there will never be true salvation without the return of the Ten Lost Tribes to the Land of Israel. Therefore the search for the Ten Lost Tribes is continues even today with new places and ethnic groups coming under the scrutiny of contemporary explorers and emissaries.