The Lost Tribes 3 – Will They Return?

From: Christopher in Minneapolis

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for your very interesting and informative answers on a variety of Jewish subjects. Perhaps you could give me your opinion on the following: I recently saw a documentary that explained that the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel were exiled to the Far East and settled along the Silk Road as far as China. What do Jewish sources say about this? Are they or their customs really Jewish? What does Judaism say about whether these “lost” tribes will ever be reunited with the Jewish people? Thanks in advance for taking time to answer.

This is a continuation of:

The Lost Tribes 1 – Where Are They?

The Lost Tribes 2 – Are They Jewish?

Dear Christopher,

In “The Lost Tribes 1 – Where Are They?” we saw that according to our sources, the Lost Tribes were exiled south to Ethiopia, and East through Syria, Iraq, Iran, India and China. In “The Lost Tribes 2 – Are They Jewish?”, we located peoples that may be remnants of the Lost Tribes living in those places and explored whether they or their customs are Jewish. In this last installment, we’ll explore the possibility of the Lost Tribes reaching Japan and conclude with a discussion of whether the Lost Tribes will ever be re-united with the Jewish people.

While there is no explicit mention in our sources of the Tribes reaching Japan, the Japanese/Shinto tradition seems to have some remarkable similarities with Judaism.

For one, a certain Japanese mythology closely resembles the Biblical chronology: The Patriarch of the Japanese nation comes down from heaven, in place of “the other” while he is preparing. [Jacob received the birthright instead of Esau, and the blessing while Esau was preparing.] The Patriarch falls in love with a beautiful woman but her father refuses unless he marries her older, less desirable sister. [Lavan prevented Jacob from marrying Rachel until he married Leah first.] The patriarch and his desired wife have a son who is bullied by his older brother and forced to the country of a sea god. [Jacob and Rachel had Joseph who is sold by his older brothers to Egypt on the Nile.] There, he attains power with which he troubles his older brother concerning famine, but eventually forgives him. [Joseph rose to power and tried his brothers regarding the famine until he forgave them.] In the meantime, the patriarch marries the daughter of the sea god, having a son whose fourth son conquers Japan. [Joseph married Osnat, daughter of Potifar, and had Ephraim, whose fourth son Joshua conquered Israel.]

Also, the Shinto festival of Ontohsai resembles the Sacrifice of Isaac. In the biblical event, Abraham leads his son up Mount Moria and binds him as a sacrifice on a wooden altar. While the knife is in Abraham’s hand, an angel intervenes and instructs him to offer a ram in Isaac’s stead. Similarly, in the Shinto festival, a boy is led to the top of a mountain called “Moriya-san”. He is tied to a wooden beam on a bamboo carpet as a priest symbolically approaches with a knife. Then a messenger appears, the boy is released and a sacrifice provided by the “god of moriya” is offered in his stead.

Furthermore, a Shinto shrine resembles the ancient Jewish Temple. The entrance to the shrine is in the East while the shrine is in the West. There is a laver near the entrance for washing hands and feet. The shrine is comprised of a courtyard, an inner holy section, and an innermost holy of holies. The holy of holies is elevated above the holy section by stairs. Worshipers pray in front of the inner holy section, but only the priest can enter the holy of holies, and only at special times.

A Japanese omikoshi, resembles the Ark of the Covenant. It is similar in size, overlain with gold, with gold winged figures on top. It is carried on the shoulders with poles, while accompanied with song and dance. The carriers must immerse themselves beforehand, and a special ceremony whereby the bearers carry the ark through a river is reminiscent of the biblical description of the Jews carrying the ark through the Jordan river on their way into Israel.

There are other similarities as well. The Japanese Shinto priest’s robe often has cords hanging from its corners, resembling Jewish tzitzit. Also, a certain type of Shinto priest called a yamabushi wears what’s called a token, a small black box on the forehead between the eyes, tied with a black cord behind the head. This closely resembles Jewish tefillin. Interestingly, a Shinto legend tells of a ninja who sought a certain yamabushi named Tengu in order to receive supernatural powers. Tengu gave him a “tora-no-maki”, a scroll of the Torah, which gave him special powers. Also, mizura, an old Samurai hairstyle resembles Jewish side locks. A statue of a Japanese Samurai dating from the 5th century shows long, curly locks of hair in front of the ears.

After we’ve observed all these disparate peoples, most of whom don’t even consider themselves to be Jewish, it’s natural to ask whether the Lost Tribes will ever be re-united with the Jewish people. Consider the words of three of the greatest prophets of Israel:

Isaiah 11: “And it shall come to pass…that G‑d…will recover the remnant of His people that shall remain from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamat, and from the islands of the sea.”

Jeremiah 23: “The day comes…that they shall no longer say: ‘As G‑d lives, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt’; but…that brought up…the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries where I had driven them’; and they shall dwell in their own land.”

Ezekiel 37: “Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph…and the tribes of Israel his companions; and I will put them together with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick…I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, where they are gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land…and they shall be no longer two nations, nor shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore.”

That the Lost Tribes will be redeemed is echoed in Talmudic sources as well: “To those who were exiled to the Sambatyon, G‑d will say, ‘Return!’ To those exiled beyond the Sambatyon, He will say, ‘Become revealed!’ Regarding those who were exiled to Rivlata, G‑d will make underground passageways through which they will come to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 49). The Mishna in Sanhedrin (10:3) brings differing opinions, though: “Rabbi Akiva says, the Ten Tribes will not return as it states, ‘and He threw them into foreign lands like this day’ [meaning] just as the day goes and does not return, they will also go and not return. Rabbi Eliezer argues, ‘and He threw them into foreign lands like this day’, [means] just as the day first becomes dark and then becomes light, so too the Ten Tribes who are now in darkness will in the future come to light.”

The opinion of R’ Akiva is difficult to understand. How can he contradict the Prophets who state explicitly that the Lost Tribes will return? And how is it possible according to R’ Akiva that the Tribes, so integral to the Jewish people, will not be part of the Redemption? The answer is based on the statement of the Sages that individuals of each of the Lost Tribes later joined the Jews who were exiled to Babylon (Megilla 14a). Accordingly, R’ Akiva’s statement that the Tribes will not return can be understood to be referring to those who remained among the non-Jews, while the statement of the prophets about their return reveal that the Tribes will nevertheless be reconstituted from those of the Tribes who made their way back to Babylon and then returned within the rest of the Jews to Israel. R’ Eliezer, however, is of the opinion that even those who remained in exile will ultimately convert back to Judaism and rejoin the Jewish People.

Tiferet Israel (Sanhedrin 10:3) explains the argument between R’ Akiva and R’ Eliezer as such, “It seems to me that Jeremiah returned many of [the Lost Tribes to Judah] as we see in Megilla and Erechin [and certainly these will be reconstituted as Tribes from within the Jewish People at the future Redemption], only that many remained mixed among the Gentiles. We know that many of them are in India, China and Ethiopia. They know only that they are Jews and they circumcise themselves and keep a few commandments. However, their worship of G‑d is mixed with idol worship. And this is the point of disagreement between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer: whether in the future those who remained inter-mixed will return in strength under the wings of the Divine Presence. Because some of them are absolute idol worshippers, and have forgotten the name of Israel, yet some Jewish customs remain from their ancestors, as in the case of the people in Afghan, who some wise geographers see as forgotten Jews. [Rabbi Akiva is of the opinion that such people will not return to Israel, while Rabbi Eliezer argues that] also in Egypt all were idol-worshippers (Sanhedrin 103b), nevertheless G‑d in his mercy opened their eyes by force and redeemed them [so too here, such peoples will be returned to Israel]”.

May we merit seeing the Final Redemption speedily in our days!

Other parts in this series are:

The Lost Tribes 1 – Where Are They?

The Lost Tribes 2 – Are They Jewish?


  • Arimasa Kubo, The Israelites Came To Ancient Japan
  • Marvin Tokayer, The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel
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