Tarot is considered to be a form of cartomancy. Tarot decks are traditionally comprised of a total of seventy-eight (78) cards, twenty-two (22) major arcana cards and fifty-six (56) minor arcana cards. The major arcana cards have a storyline structure. The minor arcana cards are split between four suits: Cups, Pentacles (or Coins), Wands, and Swords.
The storyline structure of the major arcana is commonly referred to as the Fool’s Journey, which is known to be a metaphor for one’s journey through life. And as such, each major arcana card signifies a stage in this journey.
While the major arcana cards represent the stages in one’s life journey, the minor arcana cards, more often than not, refer to things pertaining to day-to-day life, for example: a specific situation or event. As previously mentioned, the minor arcana cards are split into four suits (Cups, Pentacles, Wands, and Swords). Each suit is comprised of ten numbered cards (Ace through Ten) and four court cards (Page, Knight, Queen, and King).
How is tarot connected to Jewish mysticism?
Simply put, tarot has been significantly influenced by the Kabbalah.
The Kabbalah is a discipline that is comprised of esoteric teachings based on sacred Jewish texts. It is a discipline that, traditionally, one does not begin until the age of forty (40), as that is generally when one has completed the study of the Torah and the Talmud (though that has not stopped some folks from pursuing it before then).
The number of cards in the major arcana specifically is the same number of letters in our aleph-bet and the number of pathways on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Additionally, many tarot decks incorporate Jewish symbolism that is blatantly visible when looking at the cards.
In my opinion, the most notable evidence of Jewish symbolism is in the major arcana.
We often see it in the following cards: The High Priestess, The Lovers, and the Wheel of Fortune. As such, I will briefly discuss each card and how the symbolism is Jewish in origin.
The High Priestess
As she sits between the pillars of the Temple of Solomon, the Torah, our sacred text, rests on her lap.
Behind her, you see pomegranates, which serve as a symbol of love, fertility, and new life.
Transcribed on the pillars, we see the letters “B” and “J”, which represent bet and yud from the aleph-bet. Together, they have a numerical value of twelve (12), which can be interpreted as being a representation of the twelve pillars of the zodiac.
In this card, we see Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from Bereshit. We also see the snake and the forbidden fruit, both of which had significant parts to play in the story of Adam and Eve.
The Wheel of Fortune
In this card, we see the word TORA, which is how we pronounce Torah.
We also see the Tetragrammaton, which is the sacred, and often unspoken, name of G-d.
It is important to note that earlier decks likely had Jewish cultural influence to an extent. However, Jewish cultural influence is most prominent in the Rider Waite Smith (RWS), as well as later decks due to majority of them being based on the classic RWS.
You are probably wondering how Jewish mysticism and symbolism came to influence the creation and interpretation of most modern tarot decks.
Tarot was indeed influenced heavily by the Hermetic Qabalah, as the creators of various decks were in fact practitioners of it (Arthur Waite and Aleister Crowley, for example). However, the very foundation for the Hermetic Qabalah is the Jewish Kabbalah. In the Hermetic Qabalah, you will find the use of our aleph-bet, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, among other things that had been lifted from Judaism and Jewish mysticism.
Is tarot appropriation?
Technically, in and of itself, it is. The most prominent example of appropriation is the fact that the Wheel of Fortune often has the Tetragrammaton included in its imagery. The Tetragrammaton is not something that should be written on what is essentially a disposable piece of parchment. This alone can be seen as a mockery of the Jewish faith and a means of lampooning us.
Are we asking non-Jewish folks to put down their tarot decks and discontinue the use of tarot in their practice?
Absolutely not! The use of tarot is not a closed practice. It is open to all practitioners.
I and many other Jewish practitioners only wish to reclaim what has been taken from our culture and use it in our own practice.
Thank you for taking the time to read my musings on this subject matter. Blessings to you and yours.
~ Tora Athene