The River Sambation

by Dr. Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

Legends tell that when the Temple was destroyed, and the Israelites were taken to Babylon, their captors asked them to play the instruments and sing the songs of Zion. The Israelites wept before God: "We cannot sing the sacred songs in an unclean land!" Some cut their fingers off so they could not play the treasured musical instruments. As they wept, a cloud descended from heaven. It enveloped the Israelites, their cattle, their sheep, even their tents, carried them up into the sky, and traveled with them all day.

When night came, the cloud settled the weary travelers gently on the ground in an unknown land. All night they heard a great noise around them, and they were terrified. It sounded like a great storm, perhaps a tempest at sea. Finally the sun rose, and they saw that a mighty army surrounded the area they stood on, but could not reach them. The Israelites and their possessions occupied an island created by a mighty river, which the army could not cross.

But this was not an ordinary river. Instead of water, it raged with big and small stones, dust and waves of fire, causing terrible rumblings and an even greater noise when it hit a huge mountain of iron that stood in its path. As the stunned Israelites gazed about them, they saw that in a few places the river was not as wide, so they could converse with the soldiers across it. The soldiers told them that at this place there had never been a river before, and that the land was called Havilah. It was a very good, rich land, with many useful plants and trees, and much grazing for the herds. Six wells flowed there, uniting into a large, beautiful lake that irrigated the entire land, with many clean, edible fish in it. The Israelites started settling down happily.

A few days passed and the Sabbath evening was about to begin. The Israelites, now accustomed to the din of the river, were shocked by a sudden, total silence. The great river rested; stones did not fly into the air, the dust clouds settled, the fire died down. "What shall we do?" whispered the Israelites. "Will the soldiers now come and conquer our refuge?" As they spoke, they saw a great cloud, just like the one that carried them into the land of Havilah, descend upon the river. No one could cross the river under the blanket of that heavy, damp cloud.

The cloud remained throughout the day of the Sabbath. When dusk came, and the Israelites sang the parting song to Shabbat Hamalka, the Queen of the Sabbath, the river woke up. Stones, dust, and fire raged again.

And so it continued. The Israelites named the river Sambation, and lived there, protected and happy. Some say they can still be found there by any brave traveler who will not run away in terror when he or she comes across the mighty river raging with fire and stone in the land of Havilah. It is not too far, they say, from the kingdom of Prester John, perhaps ten days or so over some high mountains and deep valleys which can only be crossed on foot. The river can be heard, the legends say, from a distance of a day's journey.

This story is based on the firsthand account by Eldad the Danite, a ninth century traveler, as published in the book Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages, 19 Firsthand Accounts, edited by Elkan Nathan Adler; Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1987.