Traces of the Tribes are popping up all over.
The dawning of a new millennium brought burgeoning messianic expectations for many people. But while secular fears of an apocalyptic worldwide computer breakdown never materialized, other signs meaningful to both believing Jews and Christians had, in fact, already come to pass.
In particular, the ancient prophecies have been fulfilled of Jewish sovereignty reestablished in the Holy Land and the “ingathering of the exiles.”
Another such sign would be the rediscovery of the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.” Well, hold on – some of those lost tribes now seem to be getting found.
The “Lost Tribes” – Reuven, Shimon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim and Menasseh – nearly 3,000 years ago rejected the rule of King Solomon’s son and broke away to form a separate kingdom. That kingdom was destroyed in 722 BCE by the Assyrians, who sent much of the population into exile. So completely lost were the ten tribes that for many centuries they existed only in legend, inhabitants of a land “beyond the River Sambatyon” whom only the Messiah could bring back.
Over the centuries, people as disparate as the American Indians, the Japanese, and even peoples of Western Europe have been identified with the Lost Tribes, though scholars dismiss such claims as fanciful.
The Talmud, however, in full expectation of an accounting of the Lost Tribes at the end of history, divides them into three categories:
those who will be found still living as Jews;
those living as gentiles with “signs” of Jewish origins;
those who have disappeared forever.
The Jews of Ethiopia and the “Bene Israel” of India fall into the first category. Both groups have been certified by Israel’s rabbinical authorities as descendants of Lost Tribes, in part because they had continued to live as Jews.
The Ethiopian Jews, separated from the main body of Judaism for more than 2,000 years, lacked the Talmud and such post-biblical holidays as Chanukah. Despite their own tradition of descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, they were identified by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate as a remnant of the tribe of Dan.
The “Bene Israel” (Children of Israel) of India believe that their ancestors fled persecutions by the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus Ephiphanes about 175 BC, not long after the first Chanukah. Although in India they had adopted the language and dress of the surrounding Hindu population, they kept the Jewish dietary laws, the Sabbath, circumcision, and knowledge of some basic prayers. They too have been acknowledged as authentic “seed of the House of Israel” by the Israeli rabbinate.
Almost all members of both groups now live in Israel. Meanwhile, other claimants have come knocking on the Jewish door.
In a mountainous area on the India-Burma border, in the northern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, live the million members of the Shinlung Tribe, named for the town in central China from which they migrated long ago. All but a few thousand of the Shinlung are Christians, converted through intensive Christian missionizing in the nineteenth century. But according to their own tradition, they are not Indians, Burmese, or Chinese but “B’nai Menashe,” a remnant of the ancient Israelite tribe of Menasseh.
They can produce no documentation convincing to scientists. Yet in their traditional songs, they sing of “crossing over the Red Sea running dry before us.” They wear a fringed garment similar to the Jewish prayer shawl, ritually slaughter their animals and do not eat milk and meat together, a practice they did not even understand until they first made contact with religious Jews in the 1970s.
Moreover, the name Menashe appears in many of the tribe’s traditional songs and stories. According to Sara Olonoff, a Shinlung who now lives in Beit El on the West Bank with her American-born husband, in times of crisis her people go out under the sky and ritually chant, “We are the tribe of Menashe — we are secure.”
Only about 4,000 Shinlung continue to practice what they believe is the Jewish religion. Over the last 20 years, with the help of a small Israeli organization called Amishav (“My people returns”), about 300 Shinlung have settled in Israel and undergone formal conversion to Judaism. A trickle continues to arrive each year, as the immigrants bring their parents and siblings to join them.
Many more would come if allowed.
Nor are the Shinlung unique. About 18-20 million Third World peoples in Afghanistan, China and central and southern Africa – none of them Jewish by current definition – also offer tantalizing intimations of being descended from the ancient Israelite tribes. The “signs” they offer are ancient communal traditions of a Jewish past or traditional observance of quasi-Jewish religious practices unknown to their neighbors.
The Lemba tribe of central and southern Africa number almost 300,000. According to observers, their appearance is “Semitic,” they eat no pork or animals that have died on their own. They practice circumcision, do not mix milk and meat, and have complex personal purity rituals suggesting antecedents in the Hebrew Bible. Many who were converted to Christianity now say they want to "return" to their Jewish roots. Others are Muslim but call themselves "Israelites who believe in Muhammad." The Lemba claim kinship with the Ethiopian Jews and descent from the tribe of Dan, but they can provide no proof. Many now are marrying outside the tribe, further confusing their bloodlines and decreasing the likelihood of their being accepted as Jews.
Eighteen million Pathan tribespeople in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India trace some of their observances and beliefs to Judaism. They are Muslims but use names, observe rituals, such as circumcision on the eighth day, and have some tribal legends that point to ancient Jewish influences, as well as a code of law that bears some similarities to the ancient Jewish legal code.
Are the Lemba and the Pathans, as well as the Shinlung, gentiles with “signs” of Jewish origin?
And what about the Chinese ChiangMin tribe? The ChiangMin make no claim of Jewish descent, yet they worship one God, whom they call Jah’wa, similar in sound to YHVH, the Name of God in Jewish tradition. They immerse themselves in ritual baths, have 12 flags to represent them, offer animal sacrifices, and observe the biblical practice of levirate marriage.
But beyond coincidence or cultural borrowing, are any of these peoples really
descended from the tribes of ancient Israel? Rabbi Eliahu Avichail, the founder and director of Amishav, has spent nearly 40 years searching for and maintaining contact with the “Lost Tribes.” He feels certain that, at least with the Shinlung and the Pathans, he is on the right track. "Not every individual” among them is of Israelite descent, he acknowledges. “But when we look at all the signs, I am convinced that they are part of our past."
However, most scholars are considerably more doubtful.
According to Shalva Weil, Professor of Anthropology at Hebrew University, who has studied the “Lost Tribes” phenomenon, the Shinlung were a pagan tribe as recently as a hundred years ago who learned about Judaism from Christian missionaries. In Weil’s view, with the exception of the Ethiopian Jews and the Bene Israel, virtually all claims of descent from the Lost Tribes are as valid, or as invalid, as the claim that the Danes derive from the tribe of Dan or that, as the Anglo-Israelite Society argues, the British (from the Hebrew “Brit-Ish,” Covenant Man) are descended from ancient Israel – interesting notions without any scientific basis.
Nonetheless, recent studies using chromosomal analysis suggest some relationship between far-flung Jews and Jewish wannabes. Research published several years ago in the American Journal of Human Genetics
indicated the possibility of Semitic origin in the Y chromosome of about half the Lemba tribesmen tested.
More recently, Prof. Tudor Parfitt, a non-Jewish scholar at the University of London who has spent many years researching the Lost Tribes, collaborated with genetic researcher Neil Bradman to test Pathans, Lembas, Bene Israel and other groups. So far, they have confirmed a genetic link connecting Lembas, Yemenite Jews and the Bene Israel.
While such research can shed light on tribal migration patterns and possible connections between groups, however, it cannot verify any person’s Jewish origin.
Of the various groups claiming status as “Lost Tribes,” only the Shinlung have succeeded in pursuing their claim enough to become converts and immigrants to Israel in any significant number. Most of them live in Jewish towns in Judea and Samaria, where they have been welcomed for their religious orientation, their Zionism and their willingness to replace Palestinian and foreign workers, especially in agriculture.
While their absorption into Israeli life has been generally successful, the process of bringing more of them to Israel has been agonizingly slow. For this, many of the Shinlung blame the Israeli government.
“The government makes a problem all the time,” charges Yoel Ilan, who lives in the Gaza Strip. “The Israeli government is very reluctant,” agrees Sara Olonoff, who waited two years just to get a tourist visa. “They’re our biggest problem.”
Rabbi Avichail says that the government follows the lead of the Chief Rabbinate in these matters. The Chief Rabbis, he adds, “generally accept” the newcomers as sincere converts, “but grudgingly.” A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate referred questions about the Shinlung back to the Interior Ministry.
For its part, Israel’s government worries that, once it opens the gates, it will be overwhelmed by a flood of non-Jewish Third World immigrants. “Our experience,” according to Rafi Cohen, director of the Israeli Interior Ministry’s population registry, “is that you start off talking about a small number of people and before you know it, you have an endless line. We are certainly afraid of a flood.”
For practical reasons, Rabbi Avichail too has opted to go slowly. He notes that the Shinlung arrive in Israel as non-Jews with no money, no Hebrew and little familiarity with the norms of Western society. If thousands of Shinlung came suddenly, “Where would we put them?” he asks. “What would we do with them? We have to bring people slowly.”
A further brake on the immigration of the Shinlung is financial. Avichail says that it costs Amishav, which is dependent on private donations, at least $3,000 for each Shinlung brought to Israel for conversion and immigration.
The 300 Shinlung now in Israel want, of course, to bring more of their people to Israel. “We have to organize ourselves, make an organization that can approach the government,” says Gamliel Gangte, now of Kiryat Arba. Gangte, a retiree who has six children in the country, believes that about 3,000 Shinlung would eventually immigrate to Israel. He too laments that the Interior Ministry “is not giving the matter full attention.”
No doubt the messiah, when he comes, will have a very different sense of priorities.