In the earliest references, such as the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the river is given no particular attributes, but later literature claims it rages with rapids and throws up stones six days a week, or even consists entirely of stone, sand and flame. For those six days the Sambation is impossible to cross, but it stops flowing every Shabbat, the day Jews are not allowed to travel; some writers say this is the origin of the name.
Pliny the Elder, writing in the mid-1st century, mentions that there is a river in Judaea that dries up every Shabbat (NH xxxi.18). His younger contemporary Josephus speaks of the Sabbatical River (Σαββατικον) that he claims was called after "the sacred seventh day of the Jews" and that he locates between Arka (in the northern Lebanon range) and Raphanaea (in Upper Syria) (War 7.96-99), although according to his account it is dry for six days and flows only on Shabbat. The Sambation was also a popular subject in medieval literature, for instance, some versions of the Alexander Romance have Alexander the Great encounter the river on his travels. Others have said it is an active volcano (which explains the rapids, stones, fire and smoke) which rests on the Sabbath.
In 1280, Abraham Abulafia (1240 – c. 1291), a mystic and Kabbalist, set out to find the Sambation. He stopped in Rome to see Pope Nicholas III. The meeting never took place; Abulafia was jailed. The purpose of his attempted meeting is unknown, but Abulafia apparently believed he was the Messiah. Nahmanides identifies the Sambation with the Guzana River mentioned in II Kings, located in Medes.
An Ashkenazi Jewish tradition speaks of the Lost Tribes as Die Roite Yiddelech, "The little red Jews", cut off from the rest of Jewry by the legendary river Sambation "whose foaming waters raise high up into the sky a wall of fire and smoke that is impossible to pass through".
Obadiah ben Abraham writes that he was informed by Adeni Jews in Jerusalem, that they had heard from Muslim merchants that the river was located about a five days' journey from Aden. The river, which flows with rocks for six days a week, completely surrounded a land inhabited by Jews who could not ever leave, for by doing so, Shabbat would be desecrated. These Jews were all the offspring of Moses and were as holy as angels and sinless.
In modern literature, the Sambation appears prominently in Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino, whose protagonists manage to cross the raging river of stones - but find on the other side, not the Lost Ten Tribes but the Kingdom of Prester John of Christian myth.
- The Chazon Ish on locating the Sambation: אהרן יהודה ליב שטיינמן: אילת השחר: דברים נצבים ל:ג