One of the most powerful prophetic images – one that served as an inspiration to Rabbis and preachers through the ages to the time of the early Zionist movement – appears in Sefer Yeḥezkel (chapter 37). There we find that God takes the prophet Yeḥezkel to a valley of dry bones and commands him prophesy to those dry bones, informing them that God would breathe life into them and they would live.
Did this prophetic vision actually take place? And if it did, what happened to those resurrected people?
In the context of searching for a source for the idea of resurrection, the Gemara asks why the resurrected dry bones of Yeḥezkel could not be used as a source. The Gemara explains that this follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who taught that the story of the dead bones was truly a mashal – an allegory, a prophetic vision experienced by Yeḥezkel – but it did not actually take place.
Not all of the Sages agree, however. Rabbi Eliezer taught that the dead stood as living beings for a short time, sang a song of praise to God – according to Rabbi Yehoshua their song consisted of the passage “God kills and brings to life, He brings down to the grave and brings up” (I Shmuel 2:6) – and then returned to the dead. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yosei HaGelili taught that the resurrected people moved to Israel, married and raised families. In support of this position, Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira stood up and identified himself as a descendant of one of those people and showed the tefillin that he had received from his father from them.
Several positions are offered in the Gemara identifying who these people were before they were resurrected. Rav, for example, suggests that they were from the tribe of Ephraim. According to the midrash quoted by Rashi, the tribe of Ephraim miscalculated the time that they were to be enslaved in Egypt and they planned their own exodus, but were slaughtered in the land of the Pelishtim on their way to Israel, which is why the Torah instructs the Children of Israel to avoid that road when they leave Egypt (see Shemot 13:17).