Kabbala 101: The Condensed Version

imgresAny overview of the collected Rabbinical commentaries on the books of the Torah known as the Kabbala, in a text such as this, will be by definition perfunctory and incomplete. Kabbala scholarship has a 2,000-year legacy, and the commentaries span many volumes and were penned by many hands over centuries. Fortunately, there are a number of fine translations and summations available for the layman, and even a cursory reading of Kabbala texts will enhance one’s appreciation of the symbology of the Tarot, and of the rich and multilayered meanings that lie concealed behind many of the Hebrew scriptures.

To the uninitiated, Kabbalism can be best be thought of as a kind of Jewish Gnosticism, a “mystery school” dedicated to rooting out “secret doctrines” from the text of the Scriptures; that is to say, to decode the hidden wisdom that the patriarchs “encrypted” into the verses so that the teachings would remain pure and uncorrupted, and secure in the possession of the Chosen People. Obviously, this “doctrine,” if it can even be called that, differs from exoteric Judaism in much the same way that Christian Gnosticism differs from exoteric Christianity, where the teachings of the prophets and the Christ are transparent and accessible to all.

The Written Works

Origins of the Kabbala are disputed. Some attribute the authorship of the earliest works to Moses, others to Abraham, still others to God himself, who then bequeathed them to Adam. The first known commentaries, however, are found in the Rabbinic texts known collectively as the Talmud, which dates from roughly the 2nd Century C.E. Most of commentaries in the Talmud can be said to relate to either matters of law (halakha) or legend (haggadah). To the Kabbalists, haggadah—essentially, the narrative of Jewish mythology—was not something that existed in the distant past but was something dynamic that emanated throughout the aeons and which could be experienced in the present day through Torah study and prayer. Everything one did in the public sphere was, potentially, a transformative event through which great wisdom, encoded by the ancients into the text of the Torah, could be revealed to man. Problems with this exegesis arose among the classical philosophers of Rabbinic Judaism, however, because many of the older haggadahs were sometimes in conflict with the text of the Torah. As an example, Gershom Scholem recounts one particular haggadah related to the Creation myth; in this telling, God creates several worlds before He creates this one, and He destroys them all because He is unhappy with his work. As Scholem remarks in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the older anthropomorphic and mystical haggadahs, many of which were viewed as mere historical markers in the evolution of Jewish consciousness, held the greatest appeal to the Kabbalists, for there surely had to be some powerful wisdom concealed in these fantastical accounts just waiting to be excavated—what we might call a primordial energy field that waits upon us to be summoned. This approach to Scripture will come in handy in our interpretation of the Tarot, particularly the cards known as the Trumps Major, or Major Arcana.

The foundational opus of Kabbalism, however, and one which we will review more than once during the course of our Tarot study, is the Sefer Yetzirah, or “Book of Formation”, written sometime between 200 and 500 C.E. For lack of a better term, it is a “kabbalistic spelling book” that describes how God created the whole of existence—heaven, the earth, man and the universe—by means of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten numbers that form the basis of Pythagorean arithmetic. It may sound like a simplistic concept, but it is an extremely complex and challenging work, and it requires a great deal of study; for it is the document in which is expounded the qualities of the Sephirotic Tree of Life, which in turn is nothing less than a representation of all forms of consciousness at all levels of emanation—the whole of creation, in other words. (We’ll explain the Tree in greater detail momentarily.) It’s a daunting work, but it is essential for the serious student of Tarot, for many of the meanings of each card in the deck can be found in these letters and numbers; released through the Tarot, they speak a language of the own.

Most likely written sometime in the late 13th Century C.E., the Sepher ha-Bahir is a commentary on Genesis that elaborates on the Sefer Yetzirah by ascribing certain Divine qualities and attributes—alternately active and passive, emanating and receiving—to the ten Sephiroth on the “hidden Tree.” At this point, then, the unifying principle that underlies the Tarot has been clearly elucidated, so while the cards themselves are of much newer vintage, the thought that informs them is quite ancient, and was many centuries in formulating.

The third great work of kabbalistic thought is the Zohar, or Book of Splendor, generally ascribed to the Spanish kabbalist Moises De Leon and written sometime in the middle of the 13th Century C.E. It consists of commentaries, often told in anecdotal form, on verses of the Torah, as well as advice and instruction to the student on understanding its stories and applying them to everyday life. It is exceedingly long—to read the whole thing requires the student to plow through 20 volumes—but there are a number of good “short-form” summations available, and they are well worth the time to read. 

The Doctrine

To the Kabbalists, the Torah is not simply a history and genealogy text but, as Scholem vividly describes it, “a living organism animated by a secret life, which streams and pulsates below the crust of its literal meaning.” The stories, psalms and laws contained within the Scripture are not simply linear narratives but symbolic representations of God’s infinite wisdom. Thus the Torah explains the nature of the universe, the purpose of existence and the “meaning of life” for us on earth. As mentioned earlier, both Jewish law and legend were not dead letters, to be discarded when their  relevance had faded from everyday life (such as with the many prohibitions of pagan religious rituals that had ceased long ago), but timeless emanations of the Godhead, the true meanings of which could be divined by both scientific and mystic applications.

The scientific element of Kabbala study is gematria, a practice that dates to at least the 2nd Century C.E. of assigning numerical value to words, and then looking for associations in different words with identical values. Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value (some letters have more than one) and Kabbalists (and Tarot scholars) study them carefully as a way of contextualizing the apparent meanings of words.

A practical example: The Hebrew letter nun (N) has a numerical value of 50. That is the same value as the Hebrew words for “red earth” (which is to say, fertile ground, as in clay, that has been consecrated with blood, as in ritual sacrifice) and “great fish” (the fish that swallowed Jonah and sheltered him for three days). The card in the Tarot deck that corresponds numerically to the letter nun is the trump called “Death.” A skilled reader with an acute sense of recall—gematria requires a great deal of memorization, as you can imagine—might be inclined to read the card for a client as follows: “It may look like the end of the road for you now (‘Death’); but be patient. Chances are equally good that you will be released from your troubles (as Jonah was freed from the fish’s belly) and be presented with an opportunity for success (the ‘fertile/sacred ground’).” This is only to illustrate an example; the actual meaning of the card in a reading is determined, to a great extent, by the other cards surrounding it, as well as its own visual and numerical value.

Granted, one can see that it’s very easy to “overdo” gematria, and that sometimes, when reading the Tarot you’re better off relying on your own instincts than on a bunch of numbers—but the study of gematria does reveal some interesting associations. In the book of Revelation, for instance, we read of the “beast” whose “number” is said to be 666. Interestingly, that is the same numerical value as the words “Shem Yehoshuah”: literally, “The name of Joshua (or Jesus).”

The mystical element in Kabbala study involves the search for “hidden” meanings in the Torah. As an example, the first three words of the Torah are “Bereshith bara Elohim,” literally, “In the beginning created God.” Conventional exegesis perceives only a minor grammatical flaw and corrects it: “In the beginning, God created . . . “ The Kabbalist, however, sees another possible meaning; the text could be describing a world “in the beginning” before God existed, and that brought God into being. In scientific terms, think of our universe prior to the Big Bang—there had to be some kind of living organism to set it in motion, even it was only an enormous black hole. This leads the Kabbalist to postulate the existence of Ein Sof, loosely translated as “no limit:” God in His pre-formative state before He summoned Himself into existence as the “Heavenly Man,” as the Zohar puts it. The reason we characterize this as a “mystical” exercise is because, obviously, the Kabbalist is required to suspend “rational thought” when the conventional translation of Genesis suggests a world-historical narrative that is totally defined by space and time; the kabbalistic narrative pictures a world outside and beyond those dimensions.

Good and evil, to Kabbalists, do exist, but there is no universal agreement on their origin. One school holds sin to be nonexistent—an extension of free will, but otherwise a powerless property of myth. Another holds that both good and evil originate from God. All love and mercy exists in God’s right hand; all anger and wrath in his left. As long as these “spirit-forces” are kept in a harmonious balance, evil is kept in check, but should one “force” fall out of harmony with the other, evil can be released into the world. Yet another view holds that God preordained evil so that we, His Creation, would develop the moral strength to overcome it. In any event, it becomes obvious that to the Kabbalist, simplistic God-Satan dualities are insufficient to explain this; for who created Satan in the first place, and who governs his every action?

The concept of harmonious balance, not conflict, is the foundational philosophical principle of Kabbalism. The totality of all life is a multidimensional universe of prevailing and countervailing forces, energies and influences: Passive and active, emanating and receptive, light and dark, male and female; and the mission of the righteous man is the “reconciliation of the opposites.” On the spiritual level, that means the reunion of man and God and the restoration of the Garden of Eden. This is the “vision-quest” that the Kabbalist undertakes, and its visual representation in Kabbala study takes the form of the 10 Sephiroth and the 22 paths that connect them on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life (click to enlargen):


The Tree of Life can be thought of as a kind of spiritual electrical grid, fluid and dynamic, with each path a conduit for rays of Divine light, and each Sephira (emanation) a kind of “recharging station.” The current radiates simultaneously downward and upward, from God to man and vice versa. This leads directly to one of the most crucial theosophical underpinnings of Kabbala, even though it isn’t spelled out per se in any kabbalistic text: As above, so below.

The quotation is an abridgment of a meditation from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a hermetic tract of uncertain origin but dating to at least the 7th Century C.E. The text of the Tablet deserves to be read in full, for it neatly and effectively encapsulates the core of Kabbalistic teaching and thought, as well as describing the reciprocal “energy field” that exists between man and the Divine on the Tree of Life:

‘Tis true without lying, certain and most true.
That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above,
and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below,
to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.
All things have been and arose from One by the mediation of One:
so all things have their birth from this One Thing by adaptation.
The Sun is its father, the Moon its mother,
the Wind hath carried it in its belly, and the Earth is its nurse.
The father of all perfection in the whole world is here.
Its force of power is entire if it be converted into Earth.
Separate thou the Earth from the Fire,
the subtle from the gross, sweetly and with great industry.
It ascends from the Earth to the Heaven, and again it descends to the Earth,
and receives the forces of Things superior and inferior.
By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world.
And thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
Its force is above all force;
For it vanquishes every subtle thing, and penetrates every solid thing.
So was the World created.

The Tree of Life: Stations of Enlightenment

The ten “stations” on the Sephirothic Tree can be viewed anthropomorphically, with the uppermost Sephira, Kether, as the head, and the Sephiroth beneath it, Chokmah and Binah, the right and left arms, respectively; Chesed and Geburah below are the right and left hands; and Tipharaeth, in the middle, the heart and torso. Netzach and Hod are the right and left leg, Yesod the reproductive organs, and Malkuth the feet.

The Sephiroth are arranged along three parallel pillars. The central pillar is known as the Pillar of  Mildness, the right-hand pillar is the Pillar of Mercy, and the left-hand pillar is the Pillar of Severity. This is yet another representation of the reconciliation of the opposites, which is such an integral part of the kabbalistic mission.

As we pass through various stages of consciousness in life, so too do the emanations from the Tree. A good way to illustrate this is by this chart from Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi’s Adam and The Kabbalistic Tree (click to enlargen):


For those of us who are familiar with the four stages of consciousness described by C.G. Jung in his autobiography Memories Dreams Reflections, we can draw parallels to the four “worlds” of consciousness represented in overlapping circles here, in a slightly different order: Starting from the bottom of the Tree, where we currently reside in our earthly form, the “ego-consciousness” in this chart corresponds to Jung’ collective unconscious, the most primordial reactive intelligence. It is the mindlessness of man made manifest in the many atrocities he has committed throughout the centuries against his fellow man. It is in this state that we exist in our greatest distance of separation from God, and it is the starting point of our journey of self-awareness. The “self-consciousness” in the chart corresponds to the personal unconscious of Jungian psychology, the intelligence of the dream and the vision-quest, where we can first feel God’s emanations entering into us and revealing unto us a world beyond the material. The last two stages are the inverse of the first two (as above, so below). The “cosmic consciousness” depicted here is the Jungian individual conscious, where we first come to be acutely aware of our identities as spiritual beings and not merely as hunks of protoplasm; this makes itself manifest in so-called religious ecstasies or “past-life” regressions—where God literally borrows our bodies for a short time to instill within us a vision of Him. The final stage, “Divine consciousness,” represents the collective consciousness of man when he sheds his earthly fetters and is reunited with the Divine and the heavenly host, shining as a brilliant star in a constellation of spirit.

The Power of 4: The Name of God

As in many schools of esoterica, the number “4” has a special resonance in the world of Kabbala. The triangle may be the first geometric form to exist outside of a single dimension, but the square “perfects” it, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the Holy Trinity—are perfected by the presence of man; why would the Creator exist if there were nothing to create in His image? How could He be praised if there was no one around to do it?

In Kabbala the “power of 4” starts with the four-letter name of God: The Hebrew letters YHVH (Yod Heh Vav Heh). Since there are no vowels in God’s name, it is said to be “unpronounceable,” but it is commonly known as Yahweh, and colloquially as Jehovah. Because there are four basic spheres of consciousness in Kabbala, a separate tree, or world, exists within each sphere, and each represents a letter from God’s name. As with the “wheel within a wheel” of Ezekiel’s prophetic vision, they can be seen as “trees within the tree”, overlapping energy fields that simultaneously “break down” Divine spirit-forces from pure light to pure matter, and which refine man’s transmissions from pure matter to pure light. This illustration from Adam and The Kabbalistic Tree helps us to visualize it (click to enlargen):


The uppermost world, Atziluth, is the world of emanation, the eternal realm of pure spirit, and which corresponds to Yod, the element of fire, and the Wands of the Trumps Minor in the Tarot deck. The second world, Briah,is the world of creation and pure intellect, home of the archangels that corresponds to Heh, the element of water and the Cups of the Trumps Minor.  The third world, Yetzirah, the formative world, the world in which human consciousness begins to take form; it is the realm of the angels and planetary energies, and it corresponds to Vav, the element of air, and the Swords of the Trumps Minor. Finally, the fourth world, Assiah, is the elemental world of matter in which we reside. It is the home of the cherubim and corresponds to the element of earth, and the Pentacles of the Trumps Minor.

The four worlds can also be associated with the Court Cards of the Trumps Minor: Kings with Atziluth and fire, Queens with Briah and water, Princes with Yetzirah and air, and Princesses with Assiah and earth. A card such as the Queen of Swords, then, would be described as “water of air,”  that is, possessing the most exalted (or debased, if ill aspected in a reading) feminine qualities of these elements.

To those who are just getting acquainted with Tarot, all this terminology can seem a bit overwhelming at first, and you would certainly be excused for skipping this post and proceeding straight to the cards. But getting to know some some of the cosmology and philosophy of Kabbala can greatly enhance your appreciation of the cards, particularly when we get around to discussing the so-called Trumps Minor, or Minor Arcana.

By The Numbers: The Ten Sephiroth

At this point it is time for a brief review of the “power plants” of the Kabbala, the vessels that store, transmit and receive the energies of the cosmos, and to discuss their mystical, symbolic and archetypal meanings.

Kether: In Hebrew, “Crown,” it is exactly what that word implies—the sphere of Divine kingship, the “supreme crown” of God. Geometrically it is the point, the number “1” and, biblically, “In the beginning.” It is the original setting in motion, and the first apprehension of Creation. It is the “crown” chakra of Kundalini yoga. In the Sefer Yetzirah it is referred to as the Mystical Consciousness, so called because it is the first light of Creation. In our own lives, it represents our highest spiritual aspirations. In Tarot it is represented by the Aces of the Trumps Minor. It is the most exalted of numbers (and for that reason, Aces are generally favorable cards), for it is the number from whence all the other numbers originate; and it is the number which, if it didn’t exist, would render our world (Malkuth = 10 = 1 + 0) into existential nothingness!

Chokmah: “Wisdom” is God simultaneously beholding and releasing Himself. Geometrically it is the straight line, and biblically, “let there be light.” It is the first outpouring of Divine phallic energy that fathers all Creation. It is duality in all its manifestations, the number “2,” the day that emerges from night. It is called the Radiant Consciousness, the “Second Glory” of the Creator recognizing Himself. In our personal lives, it is our conscious mind, when we begin to become aware of ourselves; conceptually, our innermost intellect. For this reason it is the “vision” chakra of Kundalini. Astrologically, it is governed by the whole of the Zodiac. In Tarot it is represented by the Deuces and Kings of the Trumps Minor.

Binah: “Understanding” is the Divine feminine that receives God’s impregnating power through which Creation flows. Geometrically it is the triangle, the number “3,” the “speech” chakra, the three base metals of alchemy, and biblically, the Holy Trinity. It is the cosmic structure through which all thought is received, and which gives it meaning and dimension. It is called the Sanctified Consciousness and the “father of faith,” and it is represented in the Tarot by the Threes and Queens of the Trumps Minor. For us, it represents our outer intellect—when we give voice to thought, we literally “give birth” to ideas, though sometimes, words are at best an approximation of our purest thoughts. Hence, “understanding” in this case also means limitation—the womb in which Divine energy is contained and which cannot be released until the appointed time. This is also why it is governed by the planet Saturn; as legend had it, it was the deity that devoured its own children, expressing the idea that the process of giving birth automatically implies the process of dying; as above, so below.

Chesed: Now begins the process of concretizing the spiritual forces on their descent from the Divine to the worldly; in other words, we have arrived at the first stage of formation: Chesed, “Mercy,” is the love of God first made manifest. Geometrically it is the square, the cross; it is the number “4,” the seasons of the year, the number of cardinal points, the number of elements; the number of suits in the Trumps Minor, the four-letter name of God, the perfected Creation (“the circle squared”), and biblically, the First Day of Creation. It is known as the Settled Consciousness, for through it, the love of the Divine is first transformed into ethereal emanations—the genesis of form. In the Tarot it is represented by the Fours of the Trumps Minor. In human consciousness it represents our innermost emotional state, for that is where our feelings of love originate. This is probably why it is governed astrologically by Jupiter—for as he is traditionally thought the most powerful of planets, so too is love our most powerful and transcendent emotion. It is also the “throat” chakra of Kundalini—and if you’ve ever experienced a lump in your throat when you’ve fallen in love, there is a reason for it.

Geburah: As the square of Chesed signifies the work perfected, Geburah (“Severity”) signifies the work disciplined. As every Sephira on the Pillar of Mercy “expands” in energy, so every Sephira on the pillar of Severity contracts, acting as a spiritual “surge control.” It is another example of the “harmonious equilibrium” that is emblematic of Kabbala. It is the number of the pentagram in all its most exalted and debased aspects; it is the number “5,” the five senses of man, the body of man himself, and biblically, the Second Day of Creation. It is governed astrologically by Mars, the planet of fire that can either purify or destroy. On the personal level it represents our outer emotions—so often at odds with what we feel inside ourselves—and it is represented in Tarot by the four Fives of the Trumps Minor. It has been called the Rooted Consciousness, for it is said to be the essence of unity. It is the first issuance of Divine Law, and as with the laws of man, can either reward or punish.

Tiphareth: We now move into the heart of the Tree, to the Sephira through which runs more energy than any other: Tiphareth, or “Beauty.” Geometrically it is the form of the the hexagon, and it is the number “6,” the “sixth sense” of the psychic adept, and biblically, the Third Day of Creation. It is the Star of David: two triangles, one pointing upward and one downward, sharing a common center point and radiating in perfect balance—as above, so below. Astrologically it is governed by the Sun, giver of life and warmth, and is represented in the Tarot by the Sixes and Princes of the Trumps Minor. It is the “heart” chakra of Kundalini. It is called the Consciousness of Mediation, for all of the spiritual currents of the other Sepiroth flow though it, and in so doing keeps the energy flow of the Tree in a state of equilibrium. For us in the earthly dominions, it is the Divine Light that shines within the Self, the perfected spirit of God in man; the spirit that we share with everyone who has ever lived in this world, and ever will, and through which we seek communion with God at the end of days.

Netzach: Now we are entering into the last triangle, one where Divine emanation begins to form in our minds as feelings and thoughts, for now we enter Netzach, or “Victory.” Geometrically, it is represented by the heptagon; it is the days of the week, the number of traditional planets, the number of deadly sins, the number “7,” and biblically, the Fourth Day of Creation. It is the collective unconscious of Jungian psychology, the primitive undifferentiated psyche of man. On a personal level, it takes shape in our most ancient archetypal instincts and reflexes—things we instinctively love or dislike for reasons we can’t explain. Perhaps for this reason, it is also the “navel” chakra of yoga—that energy field that activates within us whenever we experience a “gut reaction” over something. Its governing planet is Venus, goddess of love but also the green-eyed monster of jealousy, and it is represented in the Tarot by the Sevens of the Trumps Minor. It as been called the Hidden Consciousness because it is the first emanation of the mind’s eye.

Hod: As Netzach represents the collective unconscious of Jungian psychology, Hod, or “Splendor,”  represents the collective conscious, the birth of primordial intellect. Geometrically it is represented by the octagon, or double-square; it is the number of the trigrams in the I Ching and the atomic number of life-giving oxygen; it is the eight-pointed star and the lemniscate, symbol of infinity, magic and science; it is the number “8,” and biblically the Fifth Day of Creation. It is known as the Perfect Consciousness because it is the genesis of intellect, the incubator in which original thought is first formed. It is governed by the planet Mercury, master of mysteries but also the trickster god, and it is represented in the Tarot by the Eights of the Trumps Minor.

Yesod: Now we have completed the descent from the Divine to the mind of man, for in Yesod, or “Foundation,” we have entered into the individual unconscious: The ego and the dream. It is the number “9,” the Sixth Day of Creation, the nine-story pagoda of heaven, and it is represented in the Tarot by the Nines of the Trumps Minor. It has been called the Pure Consciousness because it completes the last astral triangle and thus “purifies” the Tree. It is governed astrologically by the Moon, lord of the night, the reflector but not the source of light, and guardian of unknown terrors. But also in its phases it is the “foundation” of the calendar; it tells man when to plant and when to harvest, and it is a guide for those who would navigate by it. It is also the “foundation” (perineal) chakra of Kundalini, the biological “light switch” of electricity that courses through the human body.

Malkuth: Thus the Tree concludes it descent into matter and begins its ascent back to spirit in Malkuth, or “Kingdom,” the waking world of individual consciousness in which we live. It is represented geometrically by the Tree of Life and the decagon. It is the decade, the number of Commandments and the plagues of Egypt, the number of man’s physical extensions (fingers and toes), the number “10,” and in Tarot it is represented by the Tens and Princesses (Pages) of the Trumps Minor. It is known as the Scintillating Consciousness, for it extinguishes the original emanation while simultaneously sparking the light of another. It is the physical world of atoms and molecules and the gravitational “glue” that holds them together. It is, in essence, completion, the manifestation of Christ the Son of Man.

There is one other number to briefly review: The number Zero, which manifests itself as Trump 0, “The Fool” of the Trumps Major. It is the “first” of the 78 cards in the Tarot pack, from whence the royal road of discovery both begins and ultimately ends. It is the Ein Sof, the limitless light from which God created Himself; it is the circle, the perfected form with no beginning and no end point, the symbol of everything and no-thing, and the number that marries our world of Malkuth to the Divine world of Kether (1 + 0 = 10 = 1). Once again, as above, so below. Tomorrow, we’ll briefly discuss a method to “read” the paths on the Sephirotic Tree.

Dante DiMatteo