Using Tarot with Qabalah
The assignment of a Hebrew letter to each of the twenty-two Majors in Tarot is usually attributed to Eliphas Levy, the great magician of the XIX century. If Court de Gebelin and others before Levy, inspired by Romanticism, tried to bestow an Egyptian pedigree to the cards (as the ancient Book of Thoth), Levy, Papus, Wirth and several other occultists, including those of the Golden Dawn, infused the tarot with more mystical dimensions. But we need to keep in mind that Cabala was incorporated into alchemical texts during the Renaissance and it is not easy to bring forth specific dates when it comes to mystical Tarot. We just do not know with certainty when tarot cards started to be used as mystical, magical tools for masonic or magical rituals, nor when did the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet begin to be connected to the twenty-two majors. This issue is still controversial among historians and mystery school students. One basic argument is that the numbers assigned to the letters and the numbers of the Keys conflict with each other. I personally don’t see it this way, since I work with both numerical designations (the one given to the card and the one assigned to the Hebrew letter) with no problem. The ambivalence of meanings can provide a rhythmic pattern of nonsensical, ambiguous and amorphous connections that assist us in swimming the murky waters of the subconscious. Remember that it's always good to build a psychic field of associations when we do transformational work with any divination tool. I do recommend that, if you are going to use the Hebrew letters with the Majors, you should decide between the Marseilles or Golden Dawn designations. Otherwise it might get too confusing at first. Once you settle on one system and feel comfortable experimenting with it, then see how assigning a different Hebrew letter to a Major and placing the card on the Tree following a different attribution or astrological designation resonates with you.
Each Hebrew letter is a personality, an archetype, just like every Arcanum is. Even Robert Place, who has written an excellent history of Tarot (2000) as well as being the author of the Alchemical Tarot, believes that the number - letter correspondence is quite odd and a bit forced unto the cards. But, he feels similarly about mixing astrology with Tarot. To each his own; I believe that one should give it a try and really meditate on these added dimensions before drawing any conclusions. If it works for you and if it adds another level of understanding to your reading approach, then use it.
The connections with Hebrew letter symbology, with astrology, numerology and Gematria serve to add different levels of interpretation that enrich any reading were we to tap into them. We should look at all of these systems as potentialities or additional layers of information that somehow weave themselves into a reading or healing ritual whenever appropriate. I don’t even know who makes the call; is it us or Spirit? Does it really matter? If we are drawn to use any of these combinations in transformational work might be because, somehow, it makes sense at a given moment and the information is being made available to us to help expand an idea, or add another layer of understanding to a particular message, card or spread. We must remember that we each access Wisdom from very different perspectives and that no method takes precedence over another because it often boils down to what works with one's personality, level of education, cultural, social or even ethnic background of both querent and reader.
There are several good books available that delve into the mystical dimension of the Hebrew letters. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh's The Hebrew Letters: Channels of Creative Consciousness provides an excellent study that can be used quite effectively with transformational work and, therefore, it works like magic with any deck that incorporates the use of Cabala or Kabbalah or Qabalah and the Hebrew letters with Tarot. The interpretations can become quite uncanny and synchronistic in a reading when strong correspondences between the cards, the letters and the Paths on the Tree are explored. I believe that, somehow, the various energies do communicate - quite effectively- with each other. Ginsburgh notes that letters “build and enliven reality much as the encoded ‘letters’ of DNA build and define the characteristics of the living body. In particular, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are reflected in the number of chromosomes in human seed.” Every Hebrew letter represents a particular form, and is pregnant with other letters that give it a name. In addition, each letter has a number that relates, through Gematria, to other mysteries. Creation mirrors the metaphor of speech; numbers help unfold the act of creation; meaning ‘rests’ (hovers) above individual letters and resides (lives) inside words. But above all, each letter is a sacred vessel and the Hebrew name of every single creature is a channel for the Lifeforce to reveal its own divinity. (pp. 6-12.)
Alchemy plays a pivotal role in the way Cabala has been linked to Tarot since the 19th century. It is difficult to separate the three when using certain decks, like Crowley’s Book of Thoth or the Golden Dawn Magical Tarot or Case’s B.O.T.A. A newer deck that incorporates Cabala quite beautifully is The Rosetta Tarot. As every Major card is interpreted at several levels, from states of consciousness to archetypal energies, as they are connected to the Hebrew letters, to sounds and colors, there is a constant alchemical context that sustains the processes within the magical Tree of Life, the alchemical container that helps structure our transformation. The Hebrew letters can also serve as alchemical vessels of transformation. Physicist Fred Alan Wolf’s fascinating book Mind into Matter (2000) links alchemy to the Hebrew letters and quantum physics to show us how “the mysterious doctrine of alchemy pertains to a hidden, subjective, abstract, and higher order of reality that forms the basis of all truths and all spirituality (2-3).” What is interesting for our study is that Wolf uses the Hebrew letters as mnemonic tools that help achieve higher levels of consciousness through alchemical transmutation of the mind. This is also how Christian Cabala incorporated the use of the Hebrew letters into the Major Arcana in Tarot. Wolf’s alchemical connection between quantum physics and the Hebrew letters demonstrates, once again, the adaptability of these concepts to any method that cares to incorporate their potentiality and archetypal dimensions. Wolf calls this approach a new alchemy and calls himself a new alchemist. His imaginal world is accessible to us through the alchemical transformation of quantum possibilities into actualities.
Paul Foster Case (1884 – 1954), founder of Builders of the Adytum (B.O.T.A.), notes in his seminal book The Tarot (1947) that,
… the pictures do agree, without question, to the occult meanings of the letters to which they are assigned. …The attribution of the major trumps to the Hebrew alphabet is the crux in Tarot study and we should respect that. Eliphas Levi knew it, but could not give it, because he received it from a secret order. …Dr. Waite, Manly P. Hall, and some others have objected that this arrangement makes the numbers of the Keys and the numbers of the letters conflict. The answer to this is that the numbers printed on the Keys have one purpose, while those assigned to the letters have another. (Case, 21-23)
I believe that the correspondences work because we are dealing, after all, with universal archetypes. Case’s interpretations of the cards and the letters quite often draw from Carl Jung’s psychology as much as from the esoteric traditions. For example, he notes that the images on Tarot cards originate from that stock of images that are “common to all men everywhere, stored in what Dr. Carl Jung calls the ‘collective unconscious.’” Case then adds:
"These pictorial images are those we weave into dreams. They are symbols of poets, dramatists and novelists, as well as the substance of the visions of seers and prophets. Thinking in pictures is the fundamental activity of the human mind. We see before we say. Words are but labels for man’s visual imagery." (Case, 23)
It is not a question of finding “forced correspondences” between Tarot and the Hebrew letters, as several critics of this approach have called it, but rather of allowing new cadences of meaning to emerge on their own as we meditate on the vibrations that resonate within our soul when we connect letters and pictures and colors and sounds. In fact, at certain interpretive levels, it is hard not to see the connections. Just be open to them.
So, how do we apply Tarot and Cabala to transformational work? It is important to understand that the union of Cabala and Tarot, like any system that uses images and rituals to visualize and connect with the numinous, is first and foremost a mystical quest. This approach is not for everyone. It requires long hours of study and years before one starts to penetrate the mysteries. The occult schools of the 19th century embraced oriental philosophy and other primordial schools of thought precisely because they demanded rigorous work and transformation of the individual at the cellular level. For us to become vehicles of expression for the One we must first start by accepting a radical change in the way we look at the world around us, as well as at ourselves, and by understanding the role we all play in the evolution of humanity. Once the mysteries begin to be revealed, we begin to walk a very thin line between self-gratification and the realization that all this Wisdom is made available to us for the betterment of humanity as a whole and not for attainment of personal power.
Vibratory attunement is an important part of the traditions that use both Cabala and Tarot for healing or any kind of transpersonal work. More importantly, through various attunement rituals the student maintains the necessary vibratory connections with the Teachers who guide us from other dimensions and who are ahead of us on the Path of Return (at the same time, the student is also raising the vibrations and consciousnesses of those below her). Sound is a vibration that precedes light in creation. Sound and color chanting rituals activate the imagination and allow the visualization with the cards, the letters, the Tree of Life, or any of these combinations to produce altered states of consciousness that facilitate the necessary attunement and alignment with the energies that help us along the Path. This, in a nutshell, is what spiritual alchemy is all about.
Yolanda M. Robinson, PhD