The Assyrian conquerors who claimed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. made it their policy to resettle vanquished nations. By transferring one population to another’s land, they sought to crush any sense of nationalism. On the whole, their plan succeeded and the Ten Tribes were “lost” in the vortex of history.
Yet in recent times in the strangest of places, small groups of people have been found who maintain unique Judaic practices. Take, for instance, the Lemba, an ethnic group in South Africa and Zimbabwe who believe that they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. The Lemba believe in one God, have a weekly holiday, refrain from pork, practice male circumcision and mourn their dead for seven days. The connection of the Lemba to the Jewish people has been further affirmed by genetic studies that found strong DNA resemblance in the Y chromosome, and that some males even share the unique Y chromosome of the Kohanim (priests).
The Lemba, however, are not Jews. Their situation has been assessed more than once, and their link has been found tenuous.
It is interesting to note that the question of ancient heritage was addressed even in the Talmud. In Yevamot 16b, the sages discuss a potential betrothal of a Jew with a non-Jewish family who might have been part of the ten lost tribes. The sages agreed that since the majority of the world’s population is not Jewish, we must assume that a person of unverified status is most likely from the majority, and therefore not Jewish.
This question has been raised in the past on a number of occasions for several communities with the solution being that those who believe themselves to be Jewish undergo conversion in order to quell any doubts–a process that several communities have undergone (e.g. B’nai Menashe who have moved to Israel).
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