Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002) 400 pp., $28
My friend Hillel Halkin recently wrote a book entitled Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel, in which he claims to have identified descendants of the lost tribe of Manasseh in northeastern India, near the Burmese border. He is an excellent writer, and the book has received rave reviews in such publications as the New York Times (which pronounced it “a book that has many delights”), The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal.
Yet Hillel was not satisfied. He wrote me that “no ordinary reviewer can do justice to my book as a serious scholarly investigation (as opposed to literary entertainment, which it also is).” For this reason, he asked me to consider a review in BAR. The book, he explained, “makes a serious and considered case that should be judged by a professional Bible scholar in a serious and considered way. There’s no better or more natural place for this than BAR.”
I wrote back: “You are taking a risk. Do you know what a Biblical scholar would say?”
Hillel replied: “With all due respect, I took a much greater risk by writing the book in the first place than I am taking by asking you to review it in BAR. And I was quite conscious of those risks from the beginning. This is why, out in India, when I first began to suspect that I was wrong in assuming the whole Kuki-Chi-Mizo-ancient-Israel-link-theory to be a modern fabrication, my initial reaction was to groan and say to myself, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ It would have been much easier—and safer—to write a nice literary book about a people that has deluded itself into thinking that it is a Lost Tribe [rather] than a people of which certain clan groups—in my considered and reconsidered opinion—really are a remnant of such a tribe. I wouldn’t have had to worry then about being laughed at or called gullible. I know that.
“Look, Hershel, you know that I’m no nut or enthusiast, and that I am—though, like you, not a scholar with a diploma in Biblical studies—a level-headed and sophisticated person with a good grasp of historical method and historical context. And being such a person, I think I have discovered something significant. I do not think that I have by any means written the last word on the subject, but I do think I have broken ground that now needs to be worked more thoroughly than I possibly could myself…I’m willing to take my chances.”
I decided to act on his request. I didn’t want a standard book review, but a scholarly assessment of the validity of his thesis. I spoke to Hillel, and we agreed that the issue was not archaeological. It required the attention of an ethnographer and a philologist. Therefore, I asked an Israeli scholar with a specialty in ethnography, Rivka Gonen, to look at the book. Rivka has recently published a book on this topic (The Quest for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel [Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 2002]), so she can usefully compare Halkin’s argument with other attempts to identify the Lost Tribes. Is his claim similar to these, or does it differ in significant respects? Next, I asked Ronald Hendel, a leading Hebrew philologist at the University of California at Berkeley, to assess Halkin’s philological evidence. Here are their thoughts.—H.S.
The Cultural View
By Rivka Gonen
Having researched the subject of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel for many years, and 080having come to the conclusion that the search for them belongs to the realm of meta-history and messianic aspirations, I was hesitant to review Hillel Halkin’s book. And yet I was curious to find out why and how Halkin identified tribes living in northeast India and western Burma as remnants of the tribe of Manasseh.
Missionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries who were active in the mountainous provinces of Mizoram and Manipur in India and across the border in Burma, and who were generally inclined to identify any tribe they encountered with one or another of the Ten Lost Tribes, did not find any clue to possible Israelite descent among the local Kuki-Chin-Mizo peoples. What they did instead was to convert them to Christianity. And yet, sometime in the 1970s, when a Mizo man had recurring dreams of his Israelite descent, his community began to believe in his idea.
Word of this reached Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail of Jerusalem, who has devoted his life to discovering the Lost Tribes and settling them in the state of Israel. The rabbi visited the region, and when he learned that the people call themselves the Children of Manmasi, he interpreted this name as referring to the tribe of Manasseh. Under Avichail’s guidance, the Mizos built synagogues, adopted Jewish prayers, names and customs, and now insist on migrating to Israel and fully converting to normative Judaism. Indeed, several hundred of them already live in Israel, and there is strong pressure on the rest to do the same.
Halkin accompanied Avichail on his 1998 trip, a trip that he describes in great detail in the first half of the book. He was so intrigued by what he saw and heard that he returned in 1999 to investigate more fully the local beliefs, customs, rituals and memories, accounts of which make up the second part of the book. At the end of a long series of interviews with many people from the Mizo and neighboring tribes, including people who traveled from Burma to tell him their stories, Halkin was left with a handful of “clues.” It is on this dubious foundation that he builds a fascinating tale of how members of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh migrated to northeast India.
The first of these clues is the very name by which the Hualngo and Hmar peoples call themselves: “sons of Manmasi.” Notwithstanding the vague similarity between “Manmasi” and “Manasseh,” surely the former can be interpreted many other ways. I do not know any of the languages spoken in the region, or in East Asia in general, so I cannot offer an alternative explanation; but I am reminded of the case of the “British Israelites,” a Victorian group that claimed the British were descended from the Lost Tribes, and believed the term “British” derived from berit ‘ish, “covenant of man” in Hebrew.
Another Mizo term that Halkin discusses is Sangah Meichol, also pronounced “Sangametsal,” a wildcat that, in local folklore, drove the people out of their land. Halkin identifies Sangah Meichol with the Assyrian King Shalmaneser V (726–722 B.C.E.), who, he claims, exiled the tribe of Manasseh from Israel. His linguistic derivation is based on shared consonant sounds—l, m and n. Even if such a derivation is possible, the historical fact is that the Transjordanian part of the tribe of Manasseh, the part on which Halkin focuses, was exiled not by Shalmaneser but by Tiglath-pileser III in 733–732 B.C.E. When Shalmaneser V besieged Samaria and his son Sargon exiled its inhabitants in 721 B.C.E., Transjordanian Manasseh had already been in exile for more than ten years.
Halkin detects other clues in the tribes’ folklore and customs. The Kuki and Mizo peoples “remembered” the crossing of the Red Sea and sang songs about it. But the crossing of a dangerous body of water does not necessarily correspond to the Biblical crossing of the Red (or Reed) Sea. That event in the Bible was indeed momentous, but surely less so than the receiving of the Law at Mt. Sinai, an event that is not reflected in these tribes’ traditions. The chief god of the tribes is known as Pathen, but his secret name is Za or Ya, which Halkin believes stems from the name of the Israelite god, Yahweh. However, the tribes of Israel were idol-worshipers, as is mentioned time and again in the Bible. Why would the Lost Tribes remember the name of a god they did not worship?
Circumcision is another important issue for Halkin. It has always been regarded as a “sure” marker of the Lost Tribes, despite the fact that all the tribes living along the Nile, and all Muslims, follow this custom. Hence the Zulu, who used to practice circumcision, were declared Israelites by the first missionaries who encountered them. Similarly, Lost Tribe-seekers in South America observed that some Native American tribes performed circumcision and conferred upon them an Israelite heritage.
Dietary practices, if they are similar to those of the Jews, are also seized upon as “evidence” by most seekers of the Lost Tribes. Yes, the Mizos refrain from eating pork, but so do the Zulus and the Navajo people of the southwestern United States. As for festive customs, North American tribes have been said to celebrate a festival similar to the Jewish Feast of the First Fruit (Shavuot, or Pentecost), and other groups have been reported to perform a ritual akin to the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.
It is to Halkin’s credit that he does not get carried away with his story. After all his interviews and ethnographic research, he concludes that, at most, perhaps a tiny group—one family—of hypothetical Transjordanian Manasseites traveled the long and hazardous route from Assyria to their present home. (This “historical” reconstruction is gleaned from tribal songs that mention certain place-names on the supposed route.) Indeed, historians and anthropologists accept that the hill tribes in question did originate elsewhere, in Tibet or China. Halkin suggests that this handful of wandering Transjordanian Manasseites kept alive some distant memory of Israelite practices. For some reason he does not explain, the neighboring communities adopted their traditions, which then developed into the belief that they all were descended from the tribe of Manasseh.
Halkin’s long, minutely detailed descriptions of people, places, conversations, journeys, meals and the like, make Across the Sabbath River somewhat cumbersome. One eventually loses track of who is who, who did what, and where. And because the book has no index, there is no way to return to a passage of special interest. But most important of all, Halkin has failed to prove his case.
The Linguistic View
Hillel Halkin recounts some relatively reccent history of the Mizo people of northeast India and western Burma. They came under British rule in 1892; after Anglican missionaries arrived in 1894, they began to convert to Christianity, becoming almost entirely Christianized by the dawn of Indian independence in 1947. Then, in the early 1950s, a Mizo man named Chala had a vision. As Halkin relates, “An angel revealed to him that the Mizo people were the descendants of Israelites and should return to their ancestral land.” Many of these people are now hoping to be airlifted to Israel.
Halkin believes that these people are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. He places a great deal of weight on the following linguistic equations. To the left is 081the Mizo word or phrase and its meaning; to the right is Halkin’s proposed ancient Hebrew (or Greek) original.
|Sangah meichol (“long-tailed wild-cat,” a trickster in Mizo folklore)
|= Shalmaneser (king of Assyria)
|shelah (“say it again”)
|= selah (obscure Hebrew word in the book of Psalms)
|aborizah (“the end,” or a magical word)
|= ha-borey Yah (“God the creator”)
|Manmasi (eponymous tribal ancestor)
|= Menashe (the Israelite tribe of Manasseh)
|Gelet (tribal ancestor)
|= Gil’ad (the Israelite region of Gilead)
|akuptan (a place?)
|= Aigyptos (Greek word for “Egypt”)
From the standpoint of Hebrew linguistics, these equations are wholly imaginary. As a basis for ethnographic history, they have no more merit than the equation of the English word “British” with berit ‘ish (Hebrew for “covenant of man”), which was once advanced as proof that the British were descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. Halkin’s linguistic equations are the result of his random association of sounds. He states that he is “107 percent certain” that these people are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel. I would suggest that his grasp of linguistics is as reliable as his math.
The most ludicrous of these derivations is Mizo akuptan = Aigyptos, the Greek word for “Egypt.” Halkin surmises that the Lost Tribes picked up Aigyptos from Greek soldiers in ancient Bactria (northern Afghanistan). But he offers no real reason to think that akuptan refers to Egypt anyway.
As for the second most ludicrous equation, it’s a toss-up. One candidate is Mizo aborizah = ha-borey Yah. The divine title ha-borey (“the creator”) is not Biblical Hebrew but rabbinic, and therefore it could not have been known to the Lost Tribes. Tied for second place is Mizo Sangah meichol (long-tailed wildcat) = Shalmaneser, which strikes me as either wishful thinking or sheer baloney.
As far as Hebrew linguistics goes, there is no merit whatever in Halkin’s thesis.
Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel