SABBATION, or SAMBATYON, a river (real or imaginary) in Media named in some old authorities (Palestinian Talmud, and Midrash Gen. Rabba, Ixxiii.) the site of the exile of the Ten Tribes. But Josephus (War, vii. v. i) has this curious passage, from which, no doubt, many of the subsequent legends were derived:
" Now Titus Caesar tarried some time at Berytus (Beirut) and then removed thence and gave magnificent shows in all the cities of Syria through which he went, and exhibited the captive Jews as proof of the destruction of that nation. He saw on his march a river (identified by Sir C. W. Wilson with ' the stream running from the intermittent spring Fauwar ed-Deir in the Lebanon ') of such a nature as deserves to be recorded in history. It runs between Arcaea ('Arka), which is part of Agrippa's kingdom, and Rapharaea (Rafaniyeh, at north end of the Lebanon), and has something very wonderful and peculiar in it. For when it runs, its current is strong, and has plenty of water ; after which its springs fail for six days together, and leave its channel dry, as any one may see. After this it runs on the seventh day as it did before, and as though it had undergone no change at all, and it has been observed to keep this order perpetually and exactly: whence they call it the Sabbatic river, so naming it from the sacred Sabbath of the Jews."
Whiston, in his notes to Josephus, already points out that Pliny describes the same river (Hist. Nat. xxxi. n), but according to his account the river ran for six days and rested on the seventh. This is the favourite form of the legend, for though there are intermittent streams in various parts of Asia, none has yet been found to correspond to the fixed regularity posited in the tradition. Various medieval travellers reported such rivers, e.g. Petahiah of Regensburg, who states that such a stream may be found near Jabneh, but his assertion is unfounded. Mahommedans still assert that Josephus's statement is true of the Nahr-al-Arus in the neighbourhood in which he locates his Sabbatic river, but modern travellers report that this stream runs every third day. Such facts would, however, be sufficient to explain the origin of the legend. The accounts of Josephus and Pliny do not assert that the intermittence of the current had any connexion with Saturday. Aqiba (q.v.) in the early part of the 2nd century A.D., however, assumes this connexion (Sanhedrin 65 6), and a confusion between the Sambatyon of the Lost Tribes and the Sabbatical river of Syria begins to manifest itself. It is owing to the narrative of Eldad the Danite (q.v.) that the Sambatyon river rose into wide fame in the 9th century. His diary became the Arabian Nights not only of the Jews but also of many medieval Christians and Moslems. Eldad describes the Children of Moses, a powerful and Utopian race, whose territory is surrounded by a wonderful river. He describes it in these terms:
" The river Sambatyon is 200 yds. broad, about as far as a bowshot. It is full of sand and stones, but without water; the stones make a great noise like the waves of the sea and a stormy wind, so that in the night the noise is heard at a distance of half a day's journey. There are sources of water which collect themselves in one pool, out of which they water the fields. There are fish in it, and all kinds of clean birds fly round it. And this river of stone and sand rolls during the six working days and rests on the Sabbath day. As soon as the Sabbath begins, fire surrounds the river, and the flames remain until the next evening, when the Sabbath ends."
Noldeke (Betirage zur Geschichte des Alexanderromans, 48) has shown that the Sambatyon appears in one version of the Alexander Legend. Kaswini, the author of the Arab Cosmography, also refers to the Sambatyon. So does Prester John in his letter addressed to the emperor Frederick; in his account it is the violence of the current of sand and stone that prevents the Lost Tribes from reuniting. It is unnecessary to summarize the various embellishments of the legend; in one version the river attains a width of 17 m. and throws stones as high as a house. But there are no stones on Saturday; it then resembles a lake of snow-white sand. Menasseh ben Israel (q.v. ), who gave vogue to this latter story in his Hope of Israel, adds the detail that if sand from Sambatyon be kept in a bottle it agitates itself during six days but remains still on the Saturday.
The site of the Sambatyon varies considerably in the different narratives. Media, Ethiopia, Persia, India, the Caspian district, all these are suggested. Reggio identified the river with the Euphrates, Fiinn with the Zeb in Adiabene. But as Neubauer remarks: " It would be lost time to trouble ourselves about the identification of this stream."
See Neubauer, " Where are the Ten Tribes? " in Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. i. passim; M. Seligsohn in Jewish Encyclopedia, x. 681.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)