The Tarot and the Kabbalah

Tarot on the Tree of Life

Adherents of the Mysteries have long held the idea that the Tarot has its origins in the arcane system of the Kabbalah (, though there is no firm historical evidence for this. The work of the 19th century French occultist, Eliphas Levi (, was the catalyst for the study of the esoteric link between the Tarot and the Kabbalah, which became the main model for the development and interpretation of the Tarot. The most influential decks of the 20th century were founded on Kabbalistic principles, in terms of their structure, their symbology and their explication.

Central to the Western Kabbalah is the glyph Otz Chiim or the Tree of Life ( This consists of ten spheres or sefirot connected by 22 paths, and is shown above. Though the tree may be drawn with variations in the location of paths - particularly in pure, Judaic Kabbalah - esoteric tradition is consistent in presenting the tree as above, with the paths in the positions shown. The sefirot themselves are also considered to be paths, giving a total of 32 paths in all; but in discussing the associations between the Tarot and the Kabbalah, it is simpler to consider the Tree as 10 sefirot and 22 paths, as these groupings correspond respectively to the Minor Arcana ( and Major Arcana ( that make up the structure of the Tarot (

The Major Arcana and the 22 Paths

As can be seen on the diagram above, there are 22 paths on the Tree of Life, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet ( There are also 22 cards in the Major Arcana of the Tarot, and each of these corresponds to a Hebrew letter and a path on the Tree of Life. The usual attributions of the Trumps to the paths is shown above, but some occultists offer slightly different attributions. Aleister Crowley (, for example, transposes the Star and the Emperor, so that the Emperor corresponds to the Hebrew letter tzaddi, and the Star to heh. This is in keeping with the Thelemic teaching of Crowley's Liber AL vel Legis (The Book of the Law), where it is written "All these old letters of my Book are aright; but Tzaddi is not the Star" (chapter 1:57).

Each path expresses the interaction between the pair of sefirot it connects. As a quick, much simplified example, Trump XXI, the World, concerns the successful completion of one phase and the start of another, as well as ideas of synthesis and crystallization. The interactions of sefirot nine, Yesod (Foundation), and ten, Malkuth (Kingdom) mirror these ideas, with the generative aspects of Yesod finding their fulfillment in Malkuth. The process of Creation ends in Malkuth, and the return begins through Yesod. The path and the World both correspond to the Hebrew letter tav, and again this is highly appropriate as it is the final letter of the alphabet and means 'cross', a symbol associated with the manifest world.

The above example is, of course, a greatly simplified distillation. The meanings of the paths can only be approached through much study and meditation, and the symbolism of a suitably designed Tarot deck can help in this process. Conversely, an understanding of the Kabbalah facilitates a much deeper understanding of the Tarot.

The Minor Arcana and the Sefirot

There are ten sefirot on the Tree of Life, and ten numbered cards in each suit of the Minor Arcana. This gives a simple and compelling correspondence, with all the sixes belonging to the sixth sefira (Tifereth), for example. Just as the sefirot follow a sequence from the new beginning or creative impulse in the first sefira (Kether) through to completion in the tenth (Malkuth), so the numbered cards in each suit follow this pattern from the Ace through to the Ten.

Kabbalists view the Tree as acting on or through four worlds: Atziluth, Briah, Yetsirah and Assiah. So the system can be further refined, as each of the suits of the Minor Arcana corresponds to one of the four worlds. For example, Assiah is the manifest world, corresponding to the element Earth and the Tarot suit Pentacles. So the Six of Pentacles corresponds to Tifereth in Assiah. Tifereth is the sefira of balance and beauty, and Assiah the manifest, material world; hence the Six of Pentacles in the Tarot deck has meanings associated with putting money to good use, generosity, nobility and deserved success. The correspondences between the Kabbalistic worlds and the Tarot suits are as follows:

Tarot SuitElementKabbalistic World
PentaclesEarthAssiah (Manifest World)
SwordsAirYetsirah (Formative World)
CupsWaterBriah (Creative World)
WandsFireAtziluth (Archetypal World)

The court cards of the Minor Arcana are also placed at important positions on the Tree:

Court CardSefira
PagesMalkuth (Kingdom)
KnightsTifereth (Beauty)
QueensBinah (Understanding)
KingsChokmah (Wisdom)

Also, entire suits may be allocated a position, just as the four worlds are sometimes expressed on a single Tree:

Tarot SuitSefira
PentaclesMalkuth (Kingdom)
SwordsTifereth (Beauty)
CupsBinah (Understanding)
WandsChokmah (Wisdom)

That the final two tables above are nearly identical is no surprise, as each type of court card corresponds to a particular element, as does each suit. The discussion on the Minor Arcana ( goes into this in more detail.