by Jean-Michel David
(Kabbalah – Qabalah – Cabala)
It has now been well over two centuries in which implied connections between Tarot and the Kabalah has been made in writing – and perhaps longer than that if one considers the plausible Hebrew letter influence on the very design of Tarot’s Atouts (Major Arcana).
What I will do here is, rather than review the ways in which the two fields have been variously connected, is present a brief introduction and overview of some of the central and more directly relevant Kabalistic considerations, and these will only be introduced – nothing more. As volumes already exist on even such a short text as the Sefer Yetzirah alone, no-one should expect any comprehensive details on two A4 pages.
‘Kabalah’ is a Hebrew term which now encompasses a number of disparate elements. On the one hand, it includes various expositions which are exegetical mystical treatises arising out of Midrashic and Talmudic considerations – never mind what this may specifically mean for now. On the other hand are three specific elements of broader significance, each of which also escapes the confines of more traditional Jewish foundations. In a similar way that a scientific discovery or model of the universe transcends the limitations of the culture in which the discovery or structured model is formed, so too that most famous of Kabalistic consideration transcends Jewish spiritual reflection, and has done so for centuries: the Tree of Life provides a model of understanding adapted by many outside Jewish constraints precisely because of its apparent accuracy and usefulness.
Likewise considerations on letters of the Hebrew alphabet both remains within and escapes Judaism. After all, our own alphabet is closely related, and both descend from an early proto-Hebrew ‘Phoenician’. With regards to Tarot considerations, it may be mentioned that other alphabets, such as the Greek, Roman and even Runic, have also been connected in various ways with the Atouts. What strikes one immediately, however, is that only the Hebrew (of these more ‘modern’ alphabets) precisely has the number of letters as there are Atouts¹.
The third element, apart from the already mentioned Tree of Life and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, are the principal texts which characterise more traditional Kabalah. Here, I will include only those three which seem to reflect the major Kabalistic trends and, I should add, spiritual impulses. They consist of the Sefer Yetzirah, the Bahir, and the Zohar. In some ways, each also reflects principal differences and considerations: the Sefer Yetzirah focusses on the letters. As a very short text – in seed-form, in a way – it is probably worthwhile being read, if not studied in detail, by all with interests in Kabalah.
The Bahir focusses on what is termed Merkabah or ‘Chariot’ mysticism. It provides guidance on the work of ascending from the Earth realm to higher spiritual dimensions. This work is central within the body of Kabalistic texts for the development of the faculty of intuition. Without the personal transformational work actually undertaken, there is little sense in engaging in what is otherwise mere superficial reading.
The Zohar provides a more picturesque description as to what one encounters – and forms, in my opinion, part of what is referred to as the Hekhalot group of texts. This last group, properly speaking, speaks of the chambers and the discoveries of the Halls one enters as one rises on the various planes reached.
The three texts give, in that order given, a structured form of preparation, of ascent, and of discovery: a structured sequence of initiatic transformation.
Let us now return to the Tree of Life, and merely note that the chambers of the Hekhalot literature, which one reaches by ascention as per Merkabah methods, are clearly depicted in the glyph of Etz ha’ Hayim – the Tree of Life.
Various versions exist and will present only three from a large number – and omit the most commonly encountered in books focussing on Tarot (the Kircher version). It should be noted that each representation is that: a representation. As, analogically, varieties of vases exist, each being a vase, it is likewise the case that varieties of depictions of the Tree of Life exist, and one needs to maintain the fluidity of mind to penetrate behind the shell of depiction.
The circular version (above) is one of the forms employed in the school associated with the RAB’D (Rabbi Abraham Ben David), also closely connected with the Bahir. This is quite illuminating, in that it points that one expands (as well as possibly expends) and ‘travels’ outwards from centre to periphery in ever-more encompassing spheres of de-limiting girdles of manifestation. Note I write ‘spheres’, not ‘circles’.
The second image (above) shows the Tree as having clearly its roots in the realm of the Divine – a tree ‘inverted’, and similarly structured to human beings as opposed to the botanical realm of flora. Adam Kadmon may also be represented by an enfolding rose, but one needs to remember to fully invert and render inside-out the depiction.
The third derives also from early depictions and dates from late mediaeval times (below) – and forms the basis for the numerous later and more commonly utilised forms.
The last set I developed out of considerations and reflections on connections which appeared to emerge between the Tree of Life and platonic solids. Strictly, I have three related versions, each reflecting a ‘timed’ element – the ‘frontal’ view (immediately below) is one which I refer to as ‘After the Fall’, and the three-dimensional representation (below), which more clearly shows platonic solids, is from the ‘Before the Fall’ set.
[JMD’s Tree: After the Fall]
[JMD, Tree of Life Before the Fall]
Each of the spheres which essentially form the Tree is as a hall, a veritable Temple, and each, as it descends towards the lowest sphere, permits greatest incarnation towards physical manifestation.
The Sefer Yetzirah is quite clear that there are precisely ten Sefirot or emanations. ‘Ten’, as it states, ‘and not nine, then and not eleven’. On some depictions, however, an eleventh can be seen, called Da’at (Knowledge). This is, at least according to some, the seed, fruit and whole Tree of Knowledge: Etz ha’ Da’at.
But let us here descend from top to bottom, moving, when there are two emanations on the same apparent level, Hebrew fashion from right to left. Above the Tree is Ain Sof, the limitless, that which is without containment, and hence pre-Sefirotic. As soon as we begin any form of containment, we may begin to form some description – but only begin, for no such description itself limits that which we seek to describe:
Keter (Crown), Hockmah (Sophia/Wisdom) and Binah (Intelligence/Understanding) from a triune group and reflect the highest world of archetypes (or Atzilut). One may also easily see on the Tree where the densest bodies of the spiritual hierarchies descend, and where our own highest bodies are located. In the case of these three Sefirot (I will not describe these for each of the ten) may be ‘located’ the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones, and our highest self of Spirit-Being, Life-Spirit and Spirit-Self.
Next is Da’at, in which is also located the future organ of ‘birth’: Abra K’adabra: as I speak so I create. It is here too that may be located one’s central Ego, or inner ‘I’. Here too may we reflect on that earlier initiatic maxim: Gnothi Seauton (Know thy self).
The next triune reflects the world of creation (Beriah) and consists of Gedulah/Hesed (greatness/lovingkindness-covenant), Geburah/Pahad (power/awe) and Tifaret/Rahamin (beauty/compassion-mercy).
The triune of formation (Yetzirah) reveals Netzah (radiant eternal victory), Hod (reverberation) and Yesod (foundation).
Finally, the descent enters the world of action or manifestation (Assiah) with the single sefirah Malkut (kingdom) – which really provides the underpinning energy matrix out of which the four elements may further be delineated.
There is no way that what I have written thus far should be taken without question – and various versions of the four worlds has been used to delineate or even expand the Tree, which itself has already been shown in differing ways.
On the Tree of Life are at times placed the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting specific connections from sefirah to sefirah. However, the Sefer Yetzirah, again, states clearly that the letters are positioned in a circle or circles, forming 231 ‘gates’ – think of these as gate-posts, in between which is the wind movement of sound proper, each post being a letter. As there are 22 letters, it follows that there are precisely 231 different pairs of letters which can be formed. 231 is also what is sometimes referred to as the ‘theosophic’ extension of 21 (or triangular number of base 21). Simply described, 231 results when the numbers one through to 21 are added together, and possibly why only 21 of the 22 Atouts are numbered.
So what have we so far? in the first place we have the pattern, or rather patterns, of the Tree of Life; in a second we have the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; and in a third we have some important texts, characteristically represented by the three earlier mentioned.
As can be seen, order out of the vast literature may begin to be discerned, but let us expand one important consideration on the second aspect delineated thus far: the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
We divide our own alphabet into vowels and consonants – with a sense for the differences these carry. There are also alternative and more detailed ways to divide an alphabet, especially its consonants, which is what is usually also here done. The Hebrew is divided into three groups: the letters of the first group simply has to be remembered, and are referred to as the mother letters, consisting of the mathematically significantly placed first, thirteenth, and twenty-first letters (Alef, Mem, Shin).
Seven of the remaining letters have dual sounds: a plosive and a fricative form (eg, ‘B’, and ‘V’, which in Hebrew is the same letter, and which even in Spanish is not differentiated to the same extent as it is in English). These seven are therefore referred to as double letters, and its plosive form written with a dot (‘dagesh’) which indicates its plosivity.
The remaining twelve letters are designated ‘simple’ letters. Whatever the reason for the single letters (perhaps the mothers were removed from an otherwise too large group in order for precisely twelve to remain), what results are groups that may now easily be connected, in straighforward sequential order, to the twelve signs of the zodiac (wheel of Life).
The seven double letters likewise become importantly linked and connected to the seven earliest known planets – the word ‘planet’ here used in its etymologically correct sense, rather than its more modern astronomical sense, and thus includes the Sun and Moon, as well as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
The three remaining and highly important Mother letters are connected with the three points on the horizon which mark the Sun’s rise at solstices and equinoxes, and corresponds with the elements of Air, Water and Fire.
Here, then, are not only the basics, but the tools by which others have made correlations, in various ways, with Tarot. It is often by returning to some of the basic considerations as found (especially in the three texts earlier mentioned) that later correlations become understood, and may be either accepted or rejected with increased discernment of spirit.
The Zohar states:
‘Come and see how powerful is the force of the Torah and how superior it is to anything else. For whoever is occupied with the Torah does not fear the higher or lower beings, nor fear evil incidents in the work, because he is attached to the Tree of Life, which is the Torah, and daily eats from it. […]
For the Torah teaches man to walk the path of truth’.
The Bahir brilliantly indicates that
‘people want to see the king, but do not know where to find his house (Bayit). First they ask “Where is the king’s house?” Only then can they ask “Where is the king?”’.
The Sefer Yezirah opens with
‘Yah, the Lord of Hosts, engraved all with thirty-two wonderous paths of wisdom, and with three tools: with symbol (text: Sepher), with number (Sephar), and with voice (communication; Sippur)’
… and on this we close.
[Cf also J-M. David’s Fourhares.com site for further pages on the Kabalah]
- A. Kaplan Sefer Yetzirah, Weiser, 1997
- A. Kaplan The Bahir, Weiser, 1979
- G. Scholem Zohar, Schocken Books, 1949
1. It should be acknowledged that early Greek similarly had twenty-two letters, as did Latin in Mediaeval times.
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