MOSES, CHILDREN OF (; Arabic, "Banu Musa"):

In Babylon.

The legendary descendants of Moses who dwell beyond the mythical River Sambaṭion. The pathetic conception of the Jewish exiles weeping by the waters of Babylon, and refusing to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land, as pictured in Ps. cxxxvii., has been developed in Jewish legend as follows: Resting for the first time on their arrival at Babylon, part of the Jewish exiles began to eat and drink, while others wept and mourned. King Nebuchadnezzar thereupon asked the latter: "Why do you sit here and lament?" and, calling the tribe of Levi (the children of Moses), he said: "Get ye ready; while we eat and drink, ye shall play upon your harps before us, as ye have played before your God in the Temple." Then they looked at one another, thinking: "Is it not enough that by our sins we have caused His sanctuary to be destroyed, but shall we now play upon our harps before this dwarf?" Then they hung their harps upon the willows, bit off the tips of their fingers, and, pointing to their hands, said: "We lost our fingers when we were in chains; how can we play?" It is to this that the Psalmist refers in Ps. cxxxvii. 1-4. In recognition of their self-abnegation God swore: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning" (Pesiḳ. R. on Isa. xlix. 14 [ed. Friedmann, p. 144]; Midr. Teh. to Ps. cxxxvii. [ed. Buber, p. 524, Wilna, 1891]).

Since the descendants of Moses are called Levites as early as I Chron. xxiii. 14, and since, furthermore, according to Ex. xxxiv. 10, God promised Moses to do "marvels" unto him, it is easy to see how the "children of Moses" ("Bene Mosheh") were identified with the Levites who are glorified in the midrash cited above and how the history of these Levites appeared henceforth in the best-known traditions as the early accounts of the Bene Mosheh. This promise given to Moses is glossed as follows in the so-called Targum of Jonathan: "From thee shall proceed hosts of the pious, and I shall exalt them above all thy people when they shall go in captivity to the waters of Babylon; I will remove them thence and make them to dwell beyond the River Sambaṭion" (comp. also Num. R. xli.).

Beyond Sambaṭion.

Poetic justice demanded for the heroic past of the Bene Mosheh and for the merits of their great ancestor, Moses a larger recompense than the mere promise of God not to forget Jerusalem and to bring them home with the other exiles, as the two midrashim state. Hence was evolved the gradual tendency to represent the life and position of the Bene Mosheh as perfect, and to localize their dwelling-place beyond the mythical Sambaṭion in the vicinity of the Four, or Ten, Lost Tribes. According to the position assigned to that river, they are said to live either in the east, possibly in Persia, or in the west, somewhere in Africa. The Arabic theologian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) says (in his "Kitab al-Milal," ed. Cureton, i. 168; Germ. transl. by Haarbrücker, i. 255) that the Jewish heresiarch Isḥaḳ B. Ya'ḳub Obadiah Abu 'Isa al-Isfahani, when defeated in the reign of the calif 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (684-705), went as a missionary to the Banu Musa, who lived "beyond the desert." Al-Ḳazwini, an Arabic geographer of the thirteenth century, says, quoting a Jewish tradition, that the descendants of Moses fled in the time of Nebuchadnezzar to Jabarsa, a city in the extreme east, where no one was able to reach them or to ascertain their numbers (see his "Cosmography," ed. Wüstenfeld, ii. 17, Göttingen, 1848). According to another tradition (ib.), the Bene Mosheh are identical with the people praised in the Koran (sura vii. 159) as being "righteous among the people of Moses"; and Mohammed is said to have paid a visit by night to their country, which was distant six years' journey and was separated from the rest of the world by a torrent which is still only on the Sabbath.

Mohammed's account of the Bene Mosheh is, according to the same tradition, Utopian. They have no government, for their moral perfection makes it unnecessary; and they live by tilling the soil in a kind of communism. Their houses are all alike, that there may be no room for envy; and they bury their dead beside the door-posts, that the thought of death may ever be present. They rejoice in death, since they are certain that their brethren died believing in God; and they mourn every birth, since they do not know whether the new-born child will continue among the faithful. There is no illness among them, since they commit no sin; for they say that illness is merely a punishment for sin; nor are there any wild animals among them (comp. Epstein, "Eldad ha-Dani," pp. 15 et seq., Presburg, 1891).

Eldad ha-Dani.

Eldad ha-Dani subsequently became the chief source for the history of the Bene Mosheh. What he really appears to have recounted of this and similar matters is given in the responsum containing thequestion addressed by the inhabitants of Kairwan to the gaon Ẓemaḥ b. Ḥayyim of Sura (882-887) and his answer regarding the veracity of Eldad, who was staying with them at that time (first printed at Mantua, 1475-80; Jellinek, "B. H." ii. 102; Epstein, l.c. pp. 5 et seq.; D. H. Müller, "Die Rezensionen und Versionen des Eldad Had-Dani," in "Denkschriften der K. Academie der Wissenschaften, Phil.-Hist. Classe," xii. 16 et seq., Vienna, 1892). According to this account, the Bene Mosheh, after mutilating themselves as described in the midrash, were carried, together with their wives, children, and cattle, by a cloud to Havilah, the ancient land of gold. A fearful storm arose that night, and they suddenly found themselves surrounded by a mighty torrent called Sambaṭion, which rolls along stones and sand, but rests on the Sabbath, when it is covered by an impenetrable fog. Ever since that time the Bene Mosheh have lived secluded from the world, engaged in agriculture and in recounting the story of the destruction of the Temple. No wild or unclean animals of any kind disturb them. The gaon confirms this account by referring to the midrash.

Place of Exile.

In view of the corrupt condition of the text, it is doubtful as to where, in Eldad's opinion, the Danites and the Sambaṭion were. Epstein assumes that southern Arabia or Abyssinia was the region, but equally tenable arguments might be brought forward in favor of the Atlas Mountains.

Saadia Gaon explains the superscription to Ps. xc., "A Prayer of Moses," to mean a prayer by or for the sons of Moses ("Tefillah le-Mosheh Kemo li-Bene Mosheh"; see Neubauer, "'Inyane 'Aseret ha-Shebaṭim," in "Sammelband Kleiner Beiträge aus Handschriften," iv. 10, Berlin, 1888). A Spanish astronomer of the twelfth century, Abraham bar Ḥiyya, expresses himself more clearly on the subject in his "Megillat ha-Megalleh," in which he says that the Jewish tradition knows only seventy nations, while the Christians recognize seventy-two. In his opinion the Christian tradition correctly includes the Bene Mosheh as one nation in its list, since their ancestor had received the divine promise (Ex. xxxii. 10) that at the advent of the Messiah they would equal any of the other nations in numbers (Neubauer, l.c.).

Mode of Life.

In the various revisions of Eldad ha-Dani (see Müller, l.c. pp. 62 et seq.) the life of the Bene Mosheh appears as idealized as in Al-Ḳazwini's account. They live in magnificent houses in the midst of a country which stretches a three months' journey on each side, and is irrigated by six rivers that flow into one lake. Their fertile fields yield harvests twice a year, and their cattle reproduce twice. There is complete social equality, and neither slavery nor servitude exists among them, nor are there any thieves, robbers, or evil spirits. Boys pasture the flocks, and the houses are not closed at night. The Bene Mosheh are pious believers; and as they speak only Hebrew, their Talmud is written entirely in pure Hebrew, and all the halakic traditions in it are ascribed to Joshua, who received them from Moses, and the latter from God. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the inhabitants of this Utopia reached an age of 100 or 120 years, and beheld their third and fourth generations.

In some of the versions the Bene Mosheh are called "Shebeṭ Yanus," or, in the Arabic version, "Al-Sibṭ al-Harib" = "the fleeing tribe" (see Müller, l.c. p. 35), because they fled that they might remain faithful to God, although Menahem Man b. Solomon (18th cent.) asserted in his history "She'erit Yisrael" that they practised idolatry for a time, but then sought refuge with God again (see Epstein, l.c. p. 73).

Connection with Lost Tribes.

According to Abraham Jagel (16th cent.), the Bene Mosheh dwell with the Rechabites and the tribes of Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, and Asher on one side of the Sambaṭion, which flows somewhere between the Nile and the Euphrates, while Reuben, Gad, and one-half of Manasseh lie on the other bank ("Bet Ya'ar ha-Lebanon," MS. Oxford; comp. Neubauer, l.c. pp. 37 et seq.). Elijah of Pesaro, a Talmudist and philosopher of the sixteenth century, says in a letter that the Bene Mosheh lived in India on an island in the River Sambaṭion (Neubauer, l.c. p. 37).

News from the Children of Moses.

In the seventeenth century the people of Jerusalem were said to have received a letter from the Bene Mosheh, which was confirmed as authentic in 1647 by several rabbis of that city. An alleged copy was in the possession of R. Nathan Spira (died at Reggio in 1666), and it remained in the communal archives of the city, where the bibliographer Ḥayyim David Azulai saw it. Abraham Solomon Zalman, a messenger from Jerusalem, made a copy at Reggio in 1832, which he took home with him; and from this transcript the traveler Jacob Saphir published the letter in his book of travels, "Eben Sappir" (i. 97 et seq., Lyck, 1866), together with the following remarkable history connected with it: In 1646 the Palestinian messenger Baruch Gad was traveling through Media and Persia collecting money for the Holy Land. Attacked and plundered by robbers, he wandered for ten days in the desert until he sank down, exhausted by hunger and thirst. Suddenly he saw a powerful man approaching him, who addressed him in Hebrew, and asked his origin, whereupon Baruch answered in the words of the prophet Jonah: "I am a Hebrew." When the stranger asked what religion he professed, he replied: "Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God; the Eternal is One." Thereupon the stranger joyfully introduced himself as a Naphtalite named Malkiel, and gave him meat and drink. After giving him an amulet to protect him, the stranger set off to acquaint his own tribe and the others with the arrival of the messenger and his news of their coreligionists in the Diaspora, and to inform them of the contents of the letter from Palestine. Malkiel also went to the Bene Mosheh beyond the Sambaṭion, who heard of the pitiful condition of the Palestinians with tears of sorrow, and gave him a letter for Baruch to carry to Jerusalem. Malkiel then accompanied Baruch to the frontier of the territory of the Naphtalites, where he gave him the letter of the Bene Mosheh together with princely gifts, which the messenger brought safely to Jerusalem.The letter, signed by the king Ahitub b. Azariah, the prince Jehozadak b. Uzzah, and the elder Uriel b. Abiasaph, describes the life and circumstances of the Bene Mosheh, with little variation from the account of Eldad. The Bene Mosheh began their letter by regretting that in their isolation they were separated forever from their coreligionists in the holy land of Palestine, and that only the western wall of the Temple remained, from which the Shekinah had not yet departed. Since, through an Arab who had been sold to them as a slave, they had heard of the ceaseless oppression suffered by their Jewish brethren and by the Jewish religion in strange lands, they appreciated their own independence all the more. After a description of their condition and an exhortation to believe in God and to be patient under affliction, the letter closed with the regret that neither they nor the neighboring four tribes were able to help the Palestinians, since, although they themselves might cross the Sambaṭion, the four tribes were forbidden to leave their territories.

Jacob Saphir himself strongly doubted the authenticity of this letter, as it was not written in ancient Hebrew, such as one might expect from the Bene Mosheh, and the story was too reminiscent of Eldad ha-Dani's forgery.

Search for the Bene Mosheh.

A curious instance of the unbounded credulity of the Palestinians is the "Letter of the Ashkenazic Rabbis and Scholars in Palestine to the Bene Mosheh and the Ten Tribes," written by an Ashkenazic rabbi of Safed. This letter is said to have been sent to the Bene Mosheh in 1831, with a request for contributions and an invitation to settle in Palestine (comp. Neubauer, l.c. pp. 52 et seq.).

More recently the Utopia of the Bene Mosheh has been made the subject of a Hebrew poem by the poet Naphtali Herz Imber (comp. his "Barḳai," pp. 116 et seq.) and of a Judæo-German poem by A. M. Scharkanski (see his "Idische Nigunim," pp. 29 et seq.).

  • Bacher, Ag. Tan. 2d ed., pp. 290-291, Strasburg, 1903;
  • Bodenschatz, Kirchliche Verfassung der Heutigen Juden, part iv., 2d Appendix, § 6;
  • Eisenmenger, Entdecktes Judenthum, ii. 539 et seq.;
  • Epstein, Eldad ha-Dani, pp. xxxv. et seq., Presburg, 1891;
  • idem, Bereshit Rabbati, in Berliner's Magazin, xv. 74, 83 et seq.;
  • A. Neubauer, Where Are the Ten Tribes? in J. Q. R. i. 186 et seq., 411 et seq.
J. M. Sc.
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