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Eldad ha-Dani or Eldad HaDani or Eldad ben Mahli ha-Dani (Hebrew: אלדד הדני) was a Jewish, Hebrew-writing merchant and traveler of the ninth century. He professed to have been a citizen of an "independent Jewish state" in eastern Africa, probably in the Gihon region, inhabited by people claiming descent from the tribes of Dan (hence his name, "ha-Dani" = "the Danite"), Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. Starting from this state, Eldad visited Babylonia, Kairouan, and Spain, causing everywhere a great stir among the Jews by his fanciful accounts of the Ten Lost Tribes, and by the halakhot which he asserted he had brought from his native country. These halakhot, written in Hebrew, deal with the slaughtering and subsequent examination of animals (see Kosher). They differ widely from the Talmudic ordinances, and are introduced in the name of Joshua ben Nun, or, according to another version, of Othniel Ben Kenaz. Eldad's accounts soon spread, and, as usual in such cases, were remolded and amplified by copyists and editors. There are no less than eight versions with important variations. The following is a summary of Eldad's narrative according to the most complete of these versions:
His alleged travels
On leaving the land "on the other side of the river of Kush (probably the Nile)," Eldad traveled with a man of the tribe of Asher. A great storm wrecked the boat, but God prepared a plank for him and his companion, on which they floated until thrown ashore among a cannibal Ethiopian tribe called Romrom. (As to the existence in former times of such a tribe, see Metz in "Das Jüdische Litteraturblatt," 1877, No. 41.) The Asherite, who was fat, was immediately eaten, while Eldad was put into a pit to fatten. Soon after a fire-worshiping tribe assailed the cannibals, and Eldad was taken prisoner. He remained in captivity during four years, when his captors brought him to the province of Azanian (according to another version, to China), where he was ransomed by a Jewish merchant for thirty-two pieces of gold. Eldad continued his journey, and fell in with the tribe of Issachar, dwelling among high mountains near Media and Persia, their land extending ten days' journey on every side. "They are at peace with all, and their whole energy is devoted to the study of the Law; their only weapon is the knife for slaughtering animals." Their judge and prince is called Nahshon and they use the four methods of capital punishment.The tribe of Zebulon occupies the land extending from the province of Armenia to the River Euphrates. Behind the mountains of Paran the tribe of Reuben faces them. Peace reigns between these two tribes; they war as allies and divide the spoils. They possess the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Haggadah.
The tribe of Dan emigrated to the land of gold, Havilah (Kush), shortly after the separation of Judah and Israel. The tribes of Naphtali, Gad, and Asher joined the Danites later. They have a king called Adiel ben Malkiel, a prince by the name of Elizaphan, of the house of Elihab, and a judge named Abdan ben Mishael, who has the power to inflict the four capital punishments prescribed in the Law. The four tribes lead a nomadic life, and are continually at war with the five neighboring Ethiopian kings. Each tribe is in the field three months, and every warrior remains in the saddle without dismounting from one Sabbath to the next. They possess the entire Scriptures, but they do not read the Roll of Esther (not having been included in the miraculous salvation mentioned in it) nor Lamentations (to avoid its disheartening influence). They have a Talmud in pure Hebrew, but none of the Talmudic teachers is mentioned. Their ritual is introduced in the name of Joshua, who had received it from Moses, who in his turn had heard its contents from the Almighty. They speak only Hebrew (Eldad himself professed not to understand a word of Ethiopic or Arabic).
On "the other side of the river of Kush" dwell the Bene Mosheh (tribe of Levi). The River Sambation encircles their land. It rolls sand and stones during the six working days and rests on the Sabbath. From the first moment of Sabbath to the last, fire surrounds the river, and during that time no human being can approach within half a mile of either side of it. The four other tribes communicate with the Bene Mosheh from the borders of the river. The Bene Mosheh dwell in beautiful houses, and no unclean animal is found in their land. Their cattle and sheep as well as their fields bear twice a year. No child dies during the lifetime of its parents, who live to see a third and fourth generation. They do not close their houses at night, for there is no theft or wickedness among them. They speak Hebrew, and never swear by the name of God.
Reception of his story
This fanciful narrative, the origin of which is to be found in the haggadic literature, of which Eldad must have had a very extensive knowledge, was accepted by his contemporaries as true. The inhabitants of Kairwan were, it is true, troubled by the differences between his halakhot and those of the Talmud, and by some strange Hebrew expressions used by him; but the gaon Ẓemaḥ ben Hayyim of Sura, whose opinion they had asked, tranquilized them by saying that there was nothing astonishing in the four tribes disagreeing with the Talmud on some halakic points. Moreover, Eldad's personality, asserted the gaon, was known to him through Isaac ben Mar and R. Simḥah, with whom the Danite associated while he was in Babylonia. Hisdai ibn Shaprut; cites Eldad in his letter to the king of the Khazars, and Eldad's halakot were used by both Rabbinites and Karaites as weapons in defense of their respective creeds. Talmudic authorities like Rashi, Abraham ben David (RABaD), and Abraham ben Maimon quote Eldad as an unquestioned authority; and lexicographers and grammarians interpret some Hebrew words according to the meaning given them in Eldad's phraseology.
Source of "Prester John"
The influence of Eldad's narrative extended beyond Jewish circles. It was the source of the apocryphal letter of the so-called "Prester John," which appeared in the twelfth century. Intending to refute Eldad's assertion of the existence of independent Jewish states — an assertion contrary to the teaching of the Roman-Catholic Church — the Christian writer told of a priest who ruled over the great kingdom of Ethiopia, to which were subject some Jewish tribes, including the Bene Mosheh who dwelt beyond the River Sambation. However, many writers of the Middle Ages expressed doubts as to the genuineness of Eldad's narrative and his halakot, most explicitly Abraham ibn Ezra (Commentary to Exodus ii. 22) and Meïr of Rothenburg (Responsa, No. 193).
Nineteenth century opinions
"Modern" (that is, up to 1906) critics were divided in their opinions concerning Eldad. Pinsker, Grätz, and Adolf Neubauer saw in him a Karaite missionary endeavoring to discredit the Talmud by his statement that the four tribes did not know the names of the Tannaim and Amoraim, and that their halakot were different from those of the Talmud. This opinion was refuted by Moses Schorr and Adolf Jellinek, who observed that Eldad's halakot contain rules concerning the examination of slaughtered animals which are not accepted by the Karaites. P. Frankl regarded Eldad as a mere charlatan whose sayings and doings are not worth attention. Reifmann denied outright the existence of Eldad, and considered the letters of the community of Kairwan and of Ẓemaḥ ben Ḥayyim of Sura to be forgeries. Metz was the first to analyze the contents of Eldad's book in the light of the reports of other travelers. A. Epstein followed Metz's method, and came to the conclusion that Eldad's book is somewhat of the nature of a historical novel in which truth is mixed with imagination. The halakot are, according to him, genuine, and were in use among the countrymen of Eldad, either in a province of eastern Africa or in Yemen, where the Jews at that time knew Hebrew, but not the Talmud. For Eldad could not have been a native of Ethiopia, the country of the Falashas, since there only Ge'ez is spoken; and no trace of this language appears in Eldad's Hebrew; there are, however, some traces of Arabic, which Eldad must have known, although he asserted the contrary.
Some Zionist thinkers have considered Eldad ha-Dani to be an early percursor of their movement, as having presented to the Jews of his time the bright vision of a sovereign Jewish state. The radical Revisionist Zionist Israel Eldad, whose original family name was "Scheib", had taken "Eldad" as his nom de guerre during his involvement in the anti-British underground and later made this his official family name.
Eldad's travels have been published from the various existing versions: Mantua, 1480; Constantinople, 1516; ib.1519; Venice, 1544, 1605, 1648; Fürth, with a Judæo-German translation by S. H. Weil, 1769; Zolkiev, 1772; Jessnitz, 1772; Leghorn, 1828; in Jellinek's "Bet ha-Midrash," iii., vi.; Presburg, 1891 (ed. by Abraham Epstein). As to the differences between the various versions, see D. H. Müller, "Die Recensionen und Versionen des Eldad ha-Dani," in "Denkschriften der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften" (vol. xli. Vienna, 1892). Eldad's narrative was translated into Latin by G. Genebrard (Paris, 1584), and also, anonymously, into Arabic (St. Petersburg MSS. Nos. 674, 703) and into German (Dessau, 1700; Jessnitz, 1723). Extracts of the Hebrew text are given by Bartolocci ("Bibl. Rab.," i. 100) and by Johann Andreas Eisenmenger ("Entdecktes Judenthum," ii. 527).
- Pinsker, Liḳḳuṭe Ḳadmoniyyot, p. 100;
- Moses Schorr, in He-Ḥaluẓ, vi. 64;
- P. Frankl, in Monatsschrift, 1873, p. 491;
- Adolf Neubauer, in Journal Asiatique, 1861, 3d ed., v. 239 et seq.;
- idem, in Jew. Quart. Rev. i. 95, iii. 441;
- Grätz, Gesch. ii. 473;
- A. Epstein, Eldad ha-Dani (Hebr.), Presburg, 1891;
- idem, inR. E. J. xxv.;
- Reifmann, in Ha-Karmel, viii.;
- Berliner's Magazin, xv. 65;
- Metz, in Das Jüdische Litteraturblatt, 1877, No. 40;
- Cassel, in Ersch and Gruber, section ii., part 27, p. 166;
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 923.