Kabbalah and Tarot: The Tree of Life
A very quick tour!
Kabbalah is a form of mystical Judaism, and like the Tarot, it has a very strong visual aspect — summed up in a diagram known as the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The structure is organized around a set of numbered circles known as sefiroth (“glowing sapphires”), each of which represents an aspect of God.
There are several discrete substructures within the Tree.
The righthand column is called the Pillar of Mercy, and it is the male/active/positive side
The lefthand column is called the Pillar of Judgment, and it is the feminine/passive/negative side
These “opposites” are reconciled in the Middle Pillar or Pillar of Mildness
Nine of the ten sephiroth are arranged on the tree to form threetriangles, and in each triangle, two opposing factors are balanced by a third.
At the base of the Tree is a single sphere, Malkuth, which represents the material world. The meaning of the entire Tree pours through Yesod, the “spout,” into Malkuth, where it is made manifest.
Lines running between the sephiroth represent twenty-two paths. They form a kind of spiral staircase of spiritual ascent, leading from the Kingdom, or world of man, at the bottom, to the Crown of God at the top. Each path is assigned a Hebrew letter.
The paths are numbered from the top down, beginning with Path 1 (from Kesser to Hokmah), and ending with Path 22, (from Yesod to Malkuth).
Because there are twenty-two trumps in a traditional Tarot deck, twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and twenty-two paths on the Tree of Life, many esotericists have sought to discover or define connections among these three structures.
The paths connecting the sephiroth have been assigned variously by different authors to the Tarot trumps. Here’s a list of common attributions:
The idea of an ancient esoteric connection between Kabbalah (as a tradition of Jewish mysticism) and Tarot (as a structured collection of images) goes back only as far as the 1850s — and by the early 20th century, the whole theory had reached its peak of influence. But enthusiasts have continued to explore the Kabbalah-Tarot relationship, both as a creative principle and as a divinatory tool. While some still consider the relationship to have ancient origins, others see it as a matter of shared symbolic dimensions rather than secret historical connections.
If you are attracted to this approach, there are many old and new books to consult. But be prepared for quite a bit of study, because once you move past the general idea, it’s necessary to master a lot of detailed information.
You can begin exploring the topic in an experiential way, however. Just copy the Tree drawing on a large sheet of paper, and lay trump cards from your preferred deck on each of the paths. Consider how each path illuminates each card, and whether the traditional assignments seem right to you.
If you want to go further with the experiential strategy, try out a specialized deck like the Kabbalistic Tarot (2018). Here’s an informative review (with lots of pictures) by Benebel Wen.
For a different perspective, discover some comparative lore in “Depicting the Tree of Life: the Philosophical and Historical Roots of Evolutionary Tree Diagrams” (Nathalie Gontier, 2011). Although there’s no specific mention of Tarot, you’ll recognize themes associated with early Tarot history as well as the evolution of Kabbalistic imagery. A fascinating essay that’s long, but very accessible — and richly illustrated!