The Tarot and the Hebrew Alphabet

Many of those, if not the majority, who deal with the Tarot on a regular basis, may not be interested in the relationship between the Hebrew alphabet and the Tarot. Many do not know anything about it either, as it may not really be necessary for a fruitful work with the Tarot. Nevertheless, for the occult teachers and students of the over 150 year tradition of the esoteric Tarot, the interrelationship between the Hebrew alphabet (figure 1) and the Major Arcana of the Tarot is of elementary importance.

Figure 1: The Hebrew Alphabet

Did the Hebrew alphabet influence the early Tarot’s design? [1] With this question Mark Filipas begins his essay on his Lexicon Theory. Now it is a fact that there are as many Hebrew letters as the number of trumps in the Tarot: 22. Skeptics are sure that the connection between the alphabet and the Tarot was made arbitrarily against this background alone. That there is nothing behind it but this purely coincidental numerical correspondence. This camp (which includes not only outside esoteric critics but also many within the large Tarot community itself) considers the whole idea to be a big blown-up hoax or simply sophistry. Mark Filipas continues, this question has been hotly debated now for more than a century. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that the letters were fundamentally associated with the trumps from the beginning. At the other end are those who argue that there is no evidence to conclude any link between the early Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet. According to Filipas, the first Great Arcanum of the Tarot, the Juggler (or the Magician, as it is call today), corresponds to the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph (equivalent to our letter A). The second one, the Popess (the High Priestess) was related to the second letter, Beth. This runs through to the World as Shin and the Fool as Tav (figure 2a and 2b).

Figure 2a: According to Mark Filipas, key #1 of the Major Arana of the Tarot de Marseille is connected to the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph (our A)
Figure 2b: Key #21 of the Major Arana, The World corresponds to the 21st letter in the Hebrew alphabet, Shin (our sh)

Mark Filipas, in his scientific investigation of this question, succeeds in proving a demonstrable correspondence between the Hebrew letters and the Tarot de Marseille. That correspondence lies within the medieval Hebrew lexicon, he says, which contains an alphabetical sequence of words corresponding to the 22 allegorical subjects. Each trump, in effect, illustrates one Hebrew letter in much the same way as a child’s English primer echoes ‘A is for apple’ and ‘B is for boy’. Not only can the allegorical subjects be found in alphabetical sequence, but virtually every item on each trump can be found with the same initial letter, suggesting the Tarot de Marseille to be a ‘visual abecedarium’ of the Hebrew alphabet. Now what does this conclude?
It should be noted: Filipas has indeed succeeded in proving that there is a fundamental relationship between Hebrew and the Tarot. But because this connection is completely sober and factual, the advocates of a Qabalistic [a] (i.e. a Jewish-mystical) background and origin of the cards still may come up empty-handed. Does this mean that the Tarot was not designed with Qabalistic intentions and that it is simply a small didactic aid for learning the Hebrew language? Does the Tarot actually have an occult background or is it only a trivial game with educational images? As always in life, opposing positions are not mutually exclusive, but are merely aspects of one truth. Both is true. Yes, it was an abecedarium, a primer for learning the Hebrew alphabet, but it was at the same time much more than that. According to current research, the first evidence of the existence of a Tarot comes from the early stages of the Renaissance in the 14th century in northern Italy. All the believed lost ancient writings found their way to Europe through the mediation of Byzantium and the Arabs. And not only the mastery of Greek and Arabic was now of increasing interest for the erudites of the occident, but also the knowledge of the language in which the Old Testament was written had come into focus. It must be remembered that for a thousand years the Catholic Church had taken sincerely little interest in the original Hebrew text of the Thora or even in Jewish culture at all. This part of the Bible was now waiting to be translated into modern language, and not only that: it was generally a time of awakening, everywhere there was a flourishing of ancient traditions. Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars were in lively contact as rarely before, and their respective teachings influenced and cross-fertilized each other. Also the interest in Magic was tremendously large in this time. The enigmatic works from antiquity now became accessible. One saw in the pagan mysteries and philosophies (above all connected with the figure of the legendary Hermes Trismegistos) a premonition of the coming of Christ on earth. It was also believed that Hebrew was the original language of mankind, the one used by Adam and Eve in Paradise, the one that was spoken before the Babylonian confusion of languages. All this did not contradict each other in that time, all this was seen as part of a perennial wisdom (even if dealing with these things was always a dangerous tightrope walk and for many life-threatening). One looked for wisdom in the works of the Arab mystics, the Sufis, [b] and also in those of the Jewish Qabalists. Especially the Qabalah exerted a great fascination on the occidental scholars, and so they tried to appropriate this Jewish secret doctrine and to christianize it. I believe all these observations give a useful background to the fact that a learning aid of the Hebrew alphabet was certainly welcome among the learned minds at that time.
Now it is not quite so simple with the Hebrew alphabet. One should be careful to imagine this alphabet as we see our alphabet today. For us it is a simple and practical device that makes writing possible. However, the alphabets in the early days shortly after they were invented, were magical symbol-systems for people at that time that made time travel possible. The verdicts of kings, the voice of Homer, everything that was spoken language, could now be heard even after the death and silencing of the speaker. It was never spoken quietly at that time, as Friedrich Nietzsche noted, text was always declaimed aloud in the awareness of the presence of a mystery.
But there is more to this. There is this tremendously audacious idea that the letters actually had much more power. The essence of the letters was believed to transcend all that we call the world and creation. Mysticism postulated that the letters were created by God before the world. Yes, even that this universe as we know it was created by God through and by means of the letters. This belief is at the core of at least Jewish mysticism, the Qabalah.There is therefore spiritually seen reason to the statement that letters are in themselves in no way something trivial. And if they belong to a language that has produced sacred texts, then the letters of these languages are also sacred. They are alive, because with them something living was brought forth, no matter which belief systems or creation myths one considers. The religions and the spiritual currents are real, they are part of human history. Although the Tarot images may have served as learning aids, one can by no means say that the subject is exhausted with this. Yes, the Tarot de Marseille was not only clearly connected with the Hebrew alphabet in its trivial application as an abecedarium, it is obvious that from the beginning it was at the same time a cyclus of mystical-archetypal icons.
But a big question arises now: why are the Tarotists of today divided in the way how to relate the Hebrew letters to the Major Arcana, when the proof of Filipas obviously presents a clear assignment?
We have seen that the Tarot is an abecedarium of Hebrew. The name and all elements of a card refer in sequence to a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. But this does not fully describe Mark Filipas’ Lexicon Theory. Filipas also shows in his study that the shape of these letters are reflected in the design and composition of the cards. And here, too, once one takes a closer look at the images, one cannot help but register with amazement how this interplay of form and letter is laid out. Thus, the figure of the Magician clearly reflects the shape of the letter Aleph. In the posture of the Hanged Man, for example, one sees the allusion to the letter Lamed. Sometimes more clearly, sometimes less visible: the scheme runs through all the cards (figure 3).

Figure 3: Letter allusions in the Tarot de Marseille

All these examples only confirm more impressively the validity of the Lexicon Theory. Because they prove that the Hebrew alphabet is encoded in a double way into the Tarot de Marseille. The card motifs are perfectly laid out to find the Hebrew alphabet in them, once one has found the key, the access to it. Because at first sight all this is not to be recognized, it becomes obvious only if one already knows the Hebrew letters or just learns them. To the ordinary gambler (because the Tarot was also a mere card game, by the way one of the most popular from the time of the Renaissance up to the 19th century) all this remained hidden. For him those were only whimsical images he might not make any sense of it.
But something must be put into perspective here. It is a reasonable assumption that the connection with the Hebrew alphabet was an invention which did not coincide with the invention of the Tarot as such. In modern research, there is reason to suggest that the Tarot came to Europe through the mediation of Arab culture. Idries Shah says in his book The Sufis that the original Tarot depicted the teachings of a Sufi master about the cosmic influences upon humanity. It was divided into four parts, the turuq (four ways), from which the word Tarot may be derived. The Tarot, as we know it, came into being only afterwards by the change from the oriental environment to the occidental world and precisely under a christian-qabalistic [c] influence. There may have been mistranslations and also the loss of original meanings, which led to the fact that, from the Sufi point of view, the Tarot de Marseille, and therefore all today’s versions of the Tarot, are only partially correct (Temperance is incorrectly portrayed and interpreted; so is the fifteenth trump; the sixteenth trump is a classic case of misunderstanding of a word; the twentieth is wrongly emphasized). [2] In Dai Léon’s Origins of the Tarot there is a paragraph in which he states that the names and attributes of the Tarot trumps have their origin in the alphanumeric cosmology of the great Arab scholar Ibn ‘Arabi. The circle of being described by him extends over ­28 archetypal stations, 22 of which correspond to the well-known Tarot cards. [3]
All this suggests that the Tarot had no connection with the Hebrew alphabet in its very origin, it even appears that at a certain early point in its history the Tarot was deliberately reworked to become an abecedarium of the Hebrew language. [d] There was a transition, a transfer from one cultural area to another. If it is about to be inventive, one can continue to play this letter game. David Allen Hulse, for example, adapted a Tarot deck to the modern English alphabet, using 26 trumps. [4] Nil Orange has made a transference to the ancient Greek alphabet with my Alpha Beta Tarot and have arrived at 24 trumps. [5] The Tarot goes with all this if you don’t look at it in a too rigid way. Let us summarize: the Tarot de Marseille was and is an abecedarium of the Hebrew language, but not every Tarot and most probably not the original Tarot. The Tarot itself, however, always seems to be an abecedarium in relation to a particular alphabet, a game of letters.
But as I have tried to explain, from a spiritual point of view, letters are something mystical. In the apocryphal Gospel of Philip it is stated: Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. One will not receive truth in any other way. [6] The letters of the sacred scriptures are necessarily sacred themselves. Juan Acevedo quotes the Mysteria Litterarum: [the letters] are stamped/modelled by God, and there is no man or sage who has stamped them. [7] Letters are something supernatural. Therefore, an abecedarium is always a metaphysical happening. Now, however, these varieties of the Tarot which I have mentioned are perhaps no more than a side note. Nobody asks today for an original Tarot of the Sufis, nobody likes to work seriously with 24 or 26 trumps. Our modern Tarot, which descends from the Tarot de Marseille, has grown to such a great wealth and splendor today that no one wants to exchange it for anything else. The mystical reference to the Hebrew has been developed more and more deeply and subtly by a 150 years long effort of some of the greatest and best minds. We possess in our Tarot an invaluable spiritual heritage. Countless Tarotists worldwide use basically one and the same Tarot for divination and meditation, may it appear in so many different artistic guises. In principle, everything would be fine, if it were not for this fundamental dispute about the correct order of the cards.
Back to our big question: if the Lexicon Theory cannot be refuted in view of the abundance of evidence, and it precisely defines the assignment of the Hebrew letters to the Tarot, why is there so much discussion today about the nature of the connection between the alphabet and the Major Arcana of the Tarot ? Why is there such a great dispute over which attribution is now the correct one? How could they reach an agreement?
Apart from those who accept the lexicon order (for this group does exist as well), there is the French school, which basically also uses this order, but with one major exception: the Fool does not correspond to the last letter Tav in this tradition, but to the penultimate letter Shin. The World moves accordingly from the penultimate place in the order to the last place and takes the Tav from the Fool. The English school, on the other hand, puts the Fool in the first place and begins the alphabet with him, thus associating the Fool with the first letter Aleph, with the result that all the following Major Arcana are shifted for one letter. So the Magician no longer belongs to Aleph here, he is attributed to Beth. The High Priestess is no longer associated with Beth but with the third letter, Gimel, and so on. As a result, there is no longer any correspondence with the lexicon order. Both traditions have only one thing in common in this regard: both connect the 21st Arcanum, the World, with the last letter of the alphabet, Tav.
There is not the space here to go into the history and origins of the respective schools in more detail. Only briefly, the French school began toward the end of the 18th century and had its leading thinkers in Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) and Papus (1865-1916). The English school had developed about 100 years later from the secret society Order of the Golden Dawn. The leading figures were MacGregor Mathers (1854-1918) and A. E. Waite (1857-1942).
If we take a closer look at the systems of the two competing camps, we come to the conclusion: both of them deliberately changed the traditional classification because they believed it to be wrong or incomplete. Although the position of the Fool was not the only modification in this process, it is the central aspect in both paradigms. The issue here is where the Fool should exactly be located in the line of the trumps. Neither tradition was satisfied with him occupying the last place in the sequence of trumps, as the inventors of the Tarot de Marseille apparently intended. Both schools assumed that there has always been a hidden order and meaning of the Hebrew letters related to the Tarot, already laid out by the inventors who albeit presented the cards according to the lexicon order. But both schools found a different answer. It was the central book on which these speculations go back, the Book of Creation [e] dating from the period from the 2nd to the 6th century CE, that both traditions interpreted in another way. In this small book the mystical meanings of all letters of the Hebrew alphabet are laid out. These are divided into three groups and assigned with different attributes. The central and most important letters here are Aleph, Mem and Shin (they are called mothers). One can immediately see that each school assigns the Fool to a mother letter: the French tradition to Shin, the British tradition to Aleph. All agree that the Fool is the preeminent card in the Tarot and that this has to be reflected in the assignment within the alphabet.
What makes the Fool so important? First, he is already in the Tarot de Marseille the only trump without a number. Then there is the image of the trump card itself, that what it represents. The Fool is not just a fool, a madman. Is he not, asks Valentin Tomberg, a wanderer, a pilgrim to nowhere, an exile from everywhere, who cares not to appear as anything in particular, who want no name or glory or authority or power or wealth or home, or parents or friends? Is it not folly in the eyes of the world to despise all this things? You say: How would someone look who has understood the vanity of all personal claims to honor, position, authority, or power. Like a sage? Like a fool? Jung made the important discovery that we all wear a psychological mask, a persona. But what ‘persona’ remains to those who strip themeselves of this, who are nothing but human beings? What ‘persona’ – psychological garb – can be attributed to such ones? That of the Fool. It is the ecce homo [behold the man]. For in those days also they wrapped Him in a purple cloak, placed a staff in His hand, and crowned Him with thorns – for His kingdom was not of this world. (figure 4) [8]

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Figure 4: The Wandering Fool. Quote is taken from Valentin Tomberg “Inspirationen zu den Großen Arcana des Taro XIV-XXII”

There was and is a mystical identification of the Fool with Jesus Christ. This is the statement of the Christian Qabalah and the Tarot de Marseille obviously originates from this mindset. The mystical name of Jesus is written here as the four-letter name of God in the Old Testament Yod-Heh-Vav-He, but into which a Shin is inserted in the middle: Yod-Heh-Shin-Vav-Heh. The Shin as a letter is the ‘crown’ of the alphabet in this respect, and does not the letter also resemble a crown ? (figure 5a) The Shin stands for Christ, and that is the real reason why the French tradition puts the Fool in the penultimate place, just as the Shin is the penultimate letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Shin is the first among the three mother letters, and thus the noblest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Shin represents the fire element, the creative spirit that shoots into matter. It is the prima mater, the symbol of the prima materia of alchemy; it is the symbol of the primordial unity of creation. Of the three categories of body, soul and spirit, the spirit corresponds to him. [9]
One can easily recognize that depths of the mystical speculation open up here, which I cannot fathom further at this point. It should be noted that it was precisely the insights drawn from the study of the Qabalah that led to the correction of the original order of trumps. And the same is equally true of the British School. The Fool here is associated with the first letter Aleph. This also stands for the breath of life, the air element into which language, the living word, inscribes itself in forms. It corresponds to the soul … [10]
If Shin in the Christian Qabalah refers mystically to Jesus Christ, Aleph refers to God Himself, or the unity of God the Father and the Son. For here, too, there is a connection to the four-letter name of God. Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh corresponds in the Jewish alphanumeric mysticism, the Gematria, [f] to the number 26. The letter Aleph can be seen in its form like the connected letters Yod-Vav-Yod. These in turn add up to 10+6+10 = 26. (figure 5b) Aleph also has the value 1, and the word for unity also begins with Aleph: Achad.

Figure 5a: The name of Jesus in God‘s name; Figure 5b: The letter Aleph as God‘s name

After this gaze into the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet, we return to our dispute between the French and English schools of Tarot. We can clearly see that both traditions try to give the Fool the place of honor he deserves. It is just another way of saying that Christ is the fiery Holy Spirit or the Sacred Odem that breathes life into creation. Precisely because mysticism is full of hidden knowledge and mystical secrets, it is reasonable to hypothesize that already the inventors of the Qabalistic Tarot, the Tarot de Marseille, had in mind a true order of cards, which they hid behind the lexicon order, since the actual knowledge is such a powerful spiritual asset, something that cannot be simply displayed in the shop window. The fact that both schools are in conflict can actually only mean that these similarities in the essence of the two approaches are either not known to many followers of the two schools or have been forgotten. In fact superficially both views contradict each other; and who likes it when what one feels certainly as true and right and inviolable is not appreciated or denied by another. To think to hold the truth in one’s hand makes one blind to the fact that opposites are always two views of the same truth, this being a basic axiom of Hermeticism. This consideration alone should help to reconcile the two camps. Nevertheless, I would like to add a final conclusion here.
The whole problem is also based on a fundamental weakness of the intellect: this always has the rigid, unmoved as its object. Of immobility alone does the intellect form a clear idea, as the French philosopher Henri Bergson said. [11] The intellect analyzes, dissects, and always assumes a motionless, frozen snapshot. The intellect does not see that every moment of a story holds newness. It does not admit the unforeseeable. It rejects all creation. It is uncomprehending of life and movement. These are properly percieved only by intuition. What am I getting at with this thought? The thinkers of the two great schools of the Tarot, the French and the English tradition, both can only imagine that a Major Arcanum has to correspond to one letter alone. But isn’t this already where the error in thinking lies ? The Tarot is not a dead and rigid structure. We have seen that it has a sacred, mystical essence, which is why it must be something alive. Could the Tarot inspire people for so long if it were a dead construct ? No, the Tarot is alive. And something that is alive is in motion. What if neither the one or the other school was in the right, but both ? What if each card carried within it the germ of the next card, and each card was linked to two letters? What if the Magician corresponded to both Aleph and Beth, and represented the movement from Aleph to Beth, so that he did not represent a fixed point at all, but a line, actually a vector? Both sides invoke Jewish mysticism, the Qabalah. One aspect of this lore is the above mentioned Gematria, the teaching of how words and numbers are connected. An important axiom of Gematria is: every number carries within itself the germ of the next number. If two numbers are compared, a difference of only 1 falls under the carpet. This rule is called the Colel. Couldn’t this be seen as a meaningful analogy in this dispute about the right order and arrangement? To see a difference of 1 as something that is not relevant?
One must not look at the Tarot exclusively with the intellect. The living is better grasped by intuition. Nevertheless, no matter what mistakes in design or symbolic representation may befall an author or artist of a new Tarot deck: the Universe, the Life Force, the All, whatever we want to call the Supreme Power, it always ensures that meaning is created in misunderstanding and that the hand and pen of the Tarot author is inspired and guided. There are many ways, even the wrong ones, life shows again and again how truth grows out of error. A final look at the ever-changing organism of Tarot: it is, I hope, a reconciliatory final chord: what was originally considered as an argument for the French school, the hidden letters, can be found in the Pontifex Tarot also in the sense of the English school. (figure 6)

Figure 6: Allusions of the Hebrew letters in the Pontifex Tarot referring to the English tradition

[1] Mark Filipas gives an overview of his study on bunkahle.com/Tarot/allusion.html
[2] Idries Shah, The Sufis, page 480
[3] Dai Léon, Origins of the Tarot, Frog Books, page 126
[4] David Allen Hulse, Sepher Aiwass, Hell­fireclubbooks
[5] Nil Orange, Alpha Beta Tarot, orange-folio
[6] Gospel of Philip 67, 9-11 (quoted in David Fideler, Jesus Christ, Sun of God, Quest Books, page xiii)
[7] Juan Acevedo, Alphanumeric Cosmology from Greek into Arabic, Mohr Siebeck (quoting from the Mysteria Litterarum) page 127
[8] The Wandering Fool or Love and its Symbols: Early Studies on the Tarot by the Anonymous Author of the Meditations on the Tarot & Three Lectures on Hermeticism by Robert Powell, Logo Sophia San Rafael Ca. page 107 (the Anonymous Author actually is Valentin Tomberg) Ecce homo: Behold the man! appears in the Gospel of John, 19, 5
[9] anthrowiki.at/Sin_(Hebräisch)
[10] anthrowiki.at/Aleph_(Hebräisch)
[11] Henri Bergson, Schöpferische Entwicklung, Jena 1921, page 158f

[a] Qabalah is an esoteric lore and school of thought in Jewish mysticism
[b] Sufism is a religious practice, a mystical school found within Sunni Islam with a focus on Islamic ritualism, asceticism and esotericism
[c] Christian Qabalah arose during the Renaissance It interpreted the Jewish Qabalah according to Christian theology. The first important representative was Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), the first Christian scholar who dealt intensively with the Qabalah
[d] Albeit one may argue that maybe also the Sufis had themselfes reworked a preexisting proto Tarot older than the Arabic version, because there is still no certainty about the actual age and true origin of the Tarot
[e] Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) is the earliest extant book on Jewish mysticism. Being traditionally ascribed to the patriarch Abraham, scholars point to Rabbi Akiva (50/55-135 ce) as author
[f] Gematria is the alphanumerical practice of assigning a number to a word or sentence according to an cipher. Similar systems have been used by the Greeks and Arabs. It still is alive as numerology within the English alpabet

Figure 2: Paul Marteau, Tarot de Marseille, 1949 (Edition J.C. Dusserre).