Until only a few years ago, pretty much everything I knew about Qabalah (QKC?ab(b)alah?) came through what I saw Madonna and Britney Spears do in Us Weekly. I remember watching The Craft in the mid-nineties and seeing Nancy reading a book about Qabalah and thinking, “Why the hell would a witch want to read about that?” I was both mystified and smug.
It wasn’t until I began seriously studying tarot that I started being able to orient myself. For those of you who may be just as lost, I’m posting the following, which appeared in the February Tarot Skeptic Newsletter (which you should subscribe to if you enjoy this sort of thing!):
In the simplest terms possible, Qabalah is a Jewish mystical system that describes the creation of the world, our relationship to God, and the means by which we may achieve a kind of union with God. The Tree of Life—the symbol that we usually see used in reference to Qabalah—is essentially a map of creation. The word itself means receiving or received and there is an ecstatic element to the tradition (which is at least part of the reason why it’s so hard to understand through simply reading a book or two). The roots of Qabalah are thousands of years old, but increased interest developed in Middle Ages.
So what about tarot?
Part of the problem with learning Qabalah in the context of tarot is that there are so many myths floating around (my personal favorite being that tarot comes out of Qabalah and was used to preserve Jewish tradition in the face of oppression). Where to even begin?
First, understand that the connection between tarot and Qabalah was created within a particular timeframe (rather than over the course of a sweeping, expansive history). Interest in Jewish mystical tradition had been growing since the 12thcentury, but it really wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th century European occult movements that Qabalah became intimately linked with the tarot, and specifically through the work of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
It was Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875) who was largely responsible for the association of tarot with esotericism and especially Qabalah. Lévi was invested in combining a variety of occult traditions into one coherent system, believing that each conveyed some piece of a universal wisdom. Later, the magicians of the Golden Dawn would build upon (and at times conflict with) Lévi’s work, building new associations between the tarot trumps and the Hebrew letters. S.L. MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) assigned divinatory meanings to the cards according to their locations (also assigned) on the Tree of Life, and a variety of interpretations arose with the further development and spread of Golden Dawn materials.
All of this may have nothing to do with you and your practice of tarot, and that’s perfectly fair. I see Hermetic Qabalah (because it’s important to distinguish between the modern, esoteric traditions of Western Europe and ancient Jewish tradition) as one more source of information and insight in understanding and interpreting the cards. And I want as many tools as possible in my tarot arsenal.
For additional reading, it’s worth checking out Robert Wang’s The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy. I also enjoyed Rachel Pollock’s The Kabbalah Tree: A Journey of Balance & Growth. Both books are specifically about the Qabalah’s connection to tarot and are among the more accessible books I’ve found. I’d also recommend the Qabalah audio course available from Tarot School, which was enormously helpful as I began to tackle such a heady subject. (Yeah, it’s expensive, but you don’t have to pay full price. Sign up for the Tarot Tips newsletter. Discount codes and sales are regularly announced over the course of the year.)
Sidenote: Confused about spelling? Because Hebrew doesn’t transliterate precisely into English, multiple spellings of “Qabalah” exist. A convention has developed in which the choice of spelling reflects context, with “Kabbalah” referring to the original Jewish tradition, “Cabalah” for the various Christian interpretations that exist, and “Qabalah” for those of us coming from a Hermetic background (i.e. us tarot folk). Obviously, with some variation.