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Judaism and the Tarot

Written by: Rabbi Frank Tamburello | Posted on: | Category:

Rabbi Frank Tamburello

I come from an Italian American family with shared Sicilian Jewish, Roman, and Greek Catholic roots. My extended family comes from the Little Italy section of New York City, where I spent a good part of my childhood. In our neighborhood, you saw a mostly southern Italian immigrant community celebrated with an incredible cultural cross-section of shops, restaurants, festivals, and public holiday celebrations.

There were several Italian “librerie” (bookstores) in the area. These were actually emporiums that sold, beside Italian novels and history books - records, sheet music, and household items. Religious icons, candles, statues of Catholic patron saints, and Christmas nativity figurines were displayed next to espresso pots, cups and spoons, red ribbons, and amulets protective against the evil eye.

One store in particular, Libreria E. Rossi, on the corner of Mulberry and Grand Streets, also had an assortment Italian esoteric books that included Kabbala and dream interpretation, decks of regional playing cards, and different types of Tarot and different types of oracle decks, including most notably the Sibilla (Sybil).

I was always fascinated by the degree of attachment our community members had to the “folkloric” aspects of Southern Italian American culture. People in the neighborhood, carried the “corna”, the red or gold horn shaped amulet around their necks or on keychains. You saw it everywhere. I remember during the San Gennaro festival seeing an elderly woman presenting a priest with a small gift box which contained a cross upon a cotton pad to be blessed. Before the blessing, the priest removed the cross from the box and the cotton. The woman had hidden an evil eye horn amulet underneath to be secretly blessed. The priest, just removed the amulet (it was considered superstitious by the Church), scowled at the woman, and then blessed the cross. Old traditions died hard....

I had a great aunt, Aunt Amelia, who was basically the neighborhood shaman. The term for her in Italian was fattucchiera, or a woman who knew the hidden arts of healing and divination. With her special mixture of herbs and prayers she could help you get pregnant (or not), find a boyfriend, cure a headache, and relieve you of the effects of the “malocchio”, the evil eye, if you were “overlooked” (which was the English translation of the Italian term for having been a victim of jealous or envious looks). She could cure you of the evil eye with salt, garlic, water, olive oil, parsley, finger gestures, spitting, red ribbons, and secret incantations to the saints accompanied by loud weird noises called “yawning”. It was all kinda pagan, and kinda wonderful too....

Aunt Amelia also read the Italian “tarocchi,” (tarot cards) to give you advice. They were similar looking to regular Italian playing cards with some additional images included. I remember my cousin Peter once asked Aunt A. if he should date a certain young woman who was not from our neighborhood. She shuffled her deck a few times, pulled a card and just said “no.”

I was fascinated by these arts. I was not allowed to learn the prayer against the evil eye because I was not a woman, and only women could know those things, but I could learn to read tarocchi.

Before I left for college, I bought my own tarot deck at Rossi’s and asked Aunt A. teach me how to read the cards. Since the pips on the tarot cards are like the pips regular playing cards, it was a little difficult learning what all those cards individually meant.

The common Tarot deck dates from 15th century Italy. It is a 78 card deck comprised of 2 sections, the major arcana and minor arcana (arcana refers to its hidden meanings) The major arcana called in Italian “triunfi” is comprised of 22 cards. They represent the spiritual and archetypical energies and significant aspects of our personalities which each of us possess in our psychological makeup or have a potential to develop. The major arcana has cards that represent ideas such as Justice, Hope, Birth, Death, Temptation, etc.

The cards of the minor arcana are more recognizable to us since our modern playing cards are derived from them. They are divided into four suits: cups (hearts), wands (clubs), coins (diamonds) and swords (spades) - each with its corresponding court cards. The minor arcana is usually considered more “mundane” and reflect our outer experiences, daily struggles and accomplishments, and everyday activities.

So, I eventually I did learn how to read the cards and would occasionally entertain my friends with readings for years.

Last year, my Humanistic Jewish congregation in Westchester, invited Stav Appel, a Torah and Tarot scholar to give a lecture on his research into the connection between Torah and Tarot. I had always known that there was a connection between Tarot and Kabbala, so I was eager to hear Stav’s presentation.

While there have been many versions and editions of the Tarot throughout the centuries, Stav concentrated his research on the 1650 French Jean Noblet Marseille edition.

It is Stav’s conviction that In response to political and religious persecutions of the Middle Ages, and ultimately the Inquisition, the Tarot was used to teach Torah to Jews as lessons in disguise. Actually, the word Tarot itself spelled in reverse can be interpreted Torah.

The major arcana of the Noblet Tarot consists of the 22 Trionfi. The connections to hidden Jewish symbolism are most evident in this part of the deck. The major arcana is metaphysically connected to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Below, I will only briefly describe Stav’s compelling theory for each of these major cards. I think those of us who are familiar with the Tarot, will enjoy this new insight. For those of us who aren’t, it might be way to familiarize ourselves with a traditional and a beloved metaphysical tool.

  1. THE FOOL - signifies Adam, cast from Paradise, begins a new life journey.
  2. THE MAGICIAN - represents Abraham the first Patriarch, at the time of the first circumcision.
  3. THE HIGH PRIESTESS - is the high priestess of Israel, the Prophetess Miriam, whose name means “mistress of the sea.”
  4. THE EMPRESS - is Queen Esther who redeemed the Jews of Persia.
  5. THE EMPEROR - is King Cyrus, who opened the door for the Children of Israel to return to their land and build the House of God.
  6. THE HIEROPHANT or THE POPE - is King Solomon, dedicating the House of God in Jerusalem.
  7. THE LOVERS - is the trio of Jacob, Rachel and Leah. It also shows Jacob wounded by an angel and his being renamed Israel.
  8. THE CHARIOT - is the moment of Joseph’s triumph in Egypt, when he rode Pharaoh’s chariot, and was Pharaoh’s second in command.
  9. JUSTICE - the angel who confronted David in Jerusalem, for his sin of conducting a census.
  10. THE HERMIT - is Moses as he descended from Mt. Sinai. His lamp contains a bright Star of David.
  11. THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE - depicts a Torah scroll, the most treasured and revered object in Israel.
  12. STRENGTH - is a veiled description of the high priest performing a ritual sacrifice in the House of God.
  13. THE HANGED MAN - is the Persian enemy of the Jews, Haman, on the tree he prepared for the execution of Mordecai as related in the Book of Esther.
  14. DEATH - Maimonides’ 13 articles of faith. The belief in the resurrection of the dead and eternal reward for the righteous in the life of the World to Come.
  15. TEMPERANCE - depicts the ritual of netilat yedayim, the washing of the hands, which is done upon rising in the morning and before eating.
  16. THE DEVIL - is a symbolic representation of the lulav, the ritual palm frond bundle used at Sukkot. It is a symbolic unification of the masculine and feminine divine energies that were separated when Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden.
  17. THE HOUSE OF GOD or THE TOWER - represents the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
  18. THE STAR - depicts Bathsheba as she first was seen by King David from the roof of the palace. It also represents the holy days of Yom Kippur and Chanukah.
  19. THE MOON - depicts the holiday of Passover, with all its dark and light connections.
  20. THE SUN - represents the Shabbat, the greatest of holy days. The twins represent the two Sabbath candles.
  21. JUDGMENT - represents the moment of the giving of the Torah to the children of Israel on Mt. Sinai. It also represents the holy days of Shavuot and Rosh Hashana, the holy day of judgment, with the angel blowing the shofar.
  22. THE WORLD - depicts olam haba, the World to Come. The feminine form is the Holy Shechina, the feminine energy of the Holy Spirit, surrounded by the four creatures of Ezechiel’s vision. These creatures were later adopted by Christianity to represent the four evangelists of the Gospels.

I found Stav Appel’s presentation so enlightening and helpful to my understanding of an old family tradition, as well as being a new take on historical connections to Judaism. Hopefully, more people will come to appreciate these insights. Today, Tarot is having a renaissance in the spiritual community. It is giving artists opportunities for creative expression, having produced hundreds of new decks already, and producing more and more each year. Getting to know this fascinating system can only enhance our various ministries. For more in-depth information regarding Stav Appel’s deck, you can find him at www.TorahTarot.com.

Rabbi Frank Tamburello entered the rabbinate as a second career. He taught Italian and Spanish on Long Island for 36 years. He has a background in both Judaic Studies and Eastern Christian theology. He is a graduate of the Rabbinical Seminary International, and was ordained by Rabbi Joseph Gelberman in 2004. Rabbi Frank presently serves MAKOR Congregation (Society of Jewish Science - https://www.makorcenter.org/) and the Little Synagogue in Manhattan, and the Westchester Community for Humanistic Judaism (https://www.wchj.org) in White Plains, NY. Rabbi Frank and his husband Michael live in Manhattan and Milford, PA.

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