Kabbalah, from the original Hebrew, קַבָּלָה, can be spelled in roman letters at least 24 different ways, though the most common spellings you’ll come across are in the title of this brief post. These main three spellings are a reflection of the history of this wisdom tradition and its adoption/adaptation/appropriation by faith communities outside its original Judaic origin.
The spelling “Kabbalah” most accurately captures in roman letters the pronunciation in the original Hebrew.
Kabbalah is not a book, it’s one strand of the Jewish mystical tradition that encompasses many books, the most famous of which is the Zohar (The Book of Splendor). Kabbalah also includes oral teachings that have never been written down. The word Kabbalah is best translated as “received tradition.” Kabbalistic writings and practices were secret, reserved for initiates only.
The Zohar is pseudepigrapha, written by Rabbi Moses de Leon, another Spanish Kabbalist of the thirteenth century. He claimed he was merely copying a text written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, a great sage of the first century CE. This claim gave the Zohar an ancient authenticity that conferred authority to its teachings. However, from the very start there were people who did not believe the text was ancient, as it was filled with linguistic anachronisms. Nevertheless, de Leon’s contemporaries did believe that the content—the teachings—were ancient and that they represented authentic wisdom from the oral tradition. But there were, and still are, people who believed the Zohar was an ancient text.
Almost from the beginning, Christians were interested in the teachings in the Zohar. While it was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, many learned Renaissance scholars had studied these languages—and there were also apostate Jews who were willing to help in the translation. Passages of the Zohar were first translated into Latin in the fifteenth century. But even before that, there were translations of Gates of Light, a book about the Sephirot written by Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla. This led to the development of a Christian Cabala tradition which, while its origin was in Judaism and continued to be influenced by it, grew into a tradition of its own that diverged from the original Jewish tradition.
By the late sixteenth century, the Christian tradition of Cabala gave birth to another offshoot when occultists, of what is now known as the Western Hermetic Tradition, integrated Qabalah into a system of Western mystical traditions, including alchemy and astrology.
Because the teachings in these three different traditions diverged in some important places, people have come to adopt a unique spelling for each so it’s clear which tradition the writer is referring to. Generally speaking, the original Jewish tradition is Kabbalah with a “K”; Christian Cabala is spelled differently and starting with a “C,” while the Western Hermetic tradition spells Qabalah with a “Q.” Confused? Don’t worry about it—but at Gates of Light Tarot, I’m sticking to the traditional Jewish spelling, since most of my orientation is from the Jewish tradition, though I do make some adjustments for the Western Hermetic tradition, for reasons noted below.
By the eighteenth century, European occultists included tarot cards in this integrated Western Hermetic tradition, even though there is no evidence that there was a direct connection between creation of the tarot and the original Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. Nevertheless, there is a surprising convergence between the structure of the tarot deck, early interpretations of the cards, and Kabbalist teachings about the Tree of Life and the Sephirot. Applying knowledge of these Kabbalistic concepts to the tarot reveals deep layers of meaning. Similarly, the cards throw new light on the interactions of the Sephirot.
However, Hermetic Qabalah differs in some significant ways from Judaic Kabbalah, and when it comes to the tarot decks that developed out of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, obviously, the Hermetic tradition took precedence. So that if you’re studying Judaic Kabbalah and then you read tarot books that work off of the Hermetic tradition, you may find some points confusing to say the least.
Without going into detail (subsequent posts will tackle these subjects) there are two main areas where the differences between the traditions are thrown into relief:
The Four Worlds & The Tarot Suits: In Judaic Kabbalah, the world of Beriah corresponds with the world of Intellect, and the world of Yetzirah is the world of Emotion. Hermetic Qabalah reverses these correspondences, so that, for example, the world of Beriah is connected to feelings and emotions. And for this reason, in the Hermetic tradition, Beriah corresponds in the tarot to the suit of Cups. And Yetzirah corresponds to the world of the intellect and the tarot suit of Swords. Metaphorically of course, Cups/Emotions and Swords/Intellect makes sense. Why the designations of which world is which got switched I don’t know.
The Twenty-Two Paths: In any diagram of the Tree of Life, there are twenty-two lines connecting the Sephirot. And there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so that each of these paths corresponds to a letter. This teaching goes back to one of the earliest books in the Judaic Kabbalah tradition, the Sefer Yetzirah, which was written somewhere between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE. Each letter is specifically assigned to a path between two Sephirot. The Hermetic tradition (Hermeticists claim their knowledge goes back to the ancient Egyptians, but like the claim of the Zohar being an ancient text, this is spurious) also assigns the letters to pathways—however the letters follow completely different paths from the original Judaic positions. The Hermetic organization makes sense if you’re using a tarot deck based on their tradition to do spiritual work in the order as they understand it. However, there is a deeper organization to the original Judaic system. And if you use this organization to do work with the cards, you will experience different insights.
The Polish-American scientist and philosophy Alfred Korzybski taught that “the map is not the territory.” Both the Judaic and Hermetic “maps” have validity, and both can serve as important guides to help the seeker on the journey. But at certain points when working with a tarot deck that comes out of the Hermetic tradition, one has to make a choice which system to follow. If you work with the Judaic tradition, it means doing some mental acrobatics around the names of the worlds when it comes to the correspondences between the suits and the worlds.
In my work, I come from a Judaic understanding of the tradition, but I am flexible when it seems to make sense to me. After all, from a traditional Judaic point of view, tarot is prohibited. That said, there are several Judaic decks that are completely devoid of Western imagery—and thus avoid some of the halakhic (Jewish law) issues entirely. I will review these decks in another post.
Meanwhile, I’m interested in hearing your experience with these two systems and how they affect your work with the cards.