The Kabbalah: What does the word mean? An exploration

by Douglas Gibb on June 28, 2010

A statue of Moses

Whether you’re new to Tarot or have been working with Tarot for many years, the Kabbalah has always been there.

That wasn’t always the case. The Tarot existed independently of the Kabbalah for around 350 years. Take a moment to imagine what the Tarot might have been like without the current Hermetic Qabbalistic influence to shape it?

I know we have never known a world were the Tarot wasn’t connected to the Kabbalah, but for 350 years there existed a Tarot that developed, grew, and had a character quite unrecognisable with the Tarot of today.

It wasn’t until the Comte de Mellet in 1781 wrote an article that connected the 22 Hebrew letters with the 22 Major Arcana, that the Kabbalah and Tarot were united. Eliphas Levi later developed this idea by linking the four suits of the Tarot with the four letters of Tetragrammaton, YHVH.

I would argue that it was the philosophical developments of the 15th century when, the first attempts were made to incorporate Jewish Tradition with Christian mysticism, that eventually set the stage for future generations to develop modern Hermeticism (culminating with the Golden Dawn).

For most present day people who study the Tarot, the Kabbalah is an ever present influence. It’s simply there. It shapes the creation of new decks and the divinatory definitions used by most Tarot readers.

If you’re like me, you first came in contact with the Kabbalah (what could be considered Hermetic Qabalah) fairly early on in your Tarot career. You may have read about it in a Tarot book or seen Kabbalistic symbols used in a Tarot deck, either way, the link between Tarot and Kabbalah was made.

The Kabbalah is a very important area of the Tarot to understand, if for no other reason other than to recognise and have clarity of thought on how the development of Tarot has been shaped (profoundly shaped) by the influence of Kabbalah.

And as one discusses Hermetic Qabalism, one of necessity refers to the Golden Dawn as its primary modern expression. Hermetic Qabalah and Golden Dawn must be considered virtually synonymous.

— p3 The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy by Robert Wang.

Most Tarot card definitions, Tarot card symbols, theoretical frameworks and the numbering of the Trumps, amongst other things, have all been influenced by the Golden Dawn’s understanding and use of Hermetic Qabalism and symbol (specifically, the Tree of Life).

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn … The leaders of that fraternity performed the remarkable task of unifying the disparate elements of the Western Mystery Tradition (Qabalah, Hermeticism, Astrology, Neoplatonism, Dee’s Enochian Magic, etc.) in such a way that it formed a coherent method of inner exploration for the fin de siecle temperament.

— p3, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy by Robert Wang.

But before we go any further, what exactly is Kabbalah? What does the word actually mean?

What does Kabbalah mean anyway?

As far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to have one definitive meaning. Throughout the entire history of the Kabbalah, the term itself has been used in a variety of different, and sometimes contradictory ways.

In an everyday sense, the term Kabbalah is used in a surprisingly wide variety of contexts.

A visitor to the State of Israel is confronted by kabbalah several times every day. When he enters a hotel, he is obligated to face a deck, behind which a large sign reads “Kabbalah”; in English, the same sign reads “Reception.” When he purchases anything or pays for a service he receives a piece of paper on which the word “Kabbalah” is written in large Hebrew letters. If there is an English translation on that piece of paper, it reads “Reciept.” The term will pop up in scores of contexts.

Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Joseph Dan.

Joseph continues to illustrate just how common the word Kabbalah actually is. One of the best descriptions he gives concerns the verb ‘kbl’, which he claims is present within every other sentence in Hebrew, meaning simply to ‘receive’.

That’s what the word means in an everyday context, but what about a more religious one? For that, we need to look towards the Torah.

The Torah

The talmudic tractate avot, a rabbinic Hebrew text, originating around the second century, describes, in the opening commentary, Moses receiving the Torah on mount Sinai.

According to Joseph, this paragraph has been used to justify the Jewish tradition for the last 2000 years. The term “Torah” in the talmudic tractate avot, was understood to mean everything — from ethics, to the Law, to spiritual verses, to the truth of divine origin.

Moses orally transmitted this to others.

The interesting bit & Moses’ Vision

The really interesting bit is this: Moses had already received the Torah by God. From then on, whatever someone else might discover, whatever they might seek to clarify, it had already been received by Moses. In this sense, people were only ever rediscovering an aspect of what Moses had received, not discovering it … and what Moses had received, was Kabbalah.

The religious origin of the Kabbalah was that all-encompassing revelation (of Divine Truth) transmitted to Moses by God. This revelation was then handed down from generation to generation. It is found, in part, through writing and through the oral transmission from one generation to the next. This is the Tradition of Kabbalah — “that which has been received!

The Divine Truth that Moses received is not definable. It cannot be said that, “This specific detail was transmitted as was this, and this … ”. To do so would go against the all-encompassing, perhaps even eternal, content that God transmitted to Moses. Instead, it describes divine origin and transmission (tradition), without emphasising any particular aspect of it.

What particularly interests me is the concept of Tradition:

Essentially, this term conveys the opposite of what usually is recognised as “mysticism,” which is conceived as relating to original individual visions and experiences. Kabbalah in the Hebrew religious vocabulary means nonindividual, nonexperiential religious truth, which is received by tradition.

Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by Joseph Dan.


To sum up, the word Kabbalah, up until the thirteenth century, meant:

  • Received
  • Tradition

After the 13th Century, the meaning of Kabbalah changes, and it’s these changes that I’ll be exploring in a future post.

If there is anything you would like to share, I’d love to hear about it. I’ll see you in the comments :) .

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4 comments… Let's discuss

chris healey July 1, 2010 at 11:27 pm

As we’ve discussed previously, I’m kind of done with Kabbalah, although your comments and recent explorations I find really interesting. It came to me while reading your post here was the idea that we all have access to our own Kabbalah or “received” network of subtle associations that we can work with through and out of personal layers of reality to an outer and singular zenith in the dreamlands. I think this is why astral projection is such a fascinating area of enquiry for occultists… of course this is simply a belief, but I see it as infinitely more practical path… I guess my problem with Kabbalah is my resistance to dogma of any kind.

Interesting to point out that I kind of worked out a wooly tetragrammaton very early on in my Tarot stewardship by gathering the cards together with the same number and seeing what they had in common. I have it written down in a gnarly old diary back when I used to take myself waay too seriously.


Douglas Gibb July 9, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Hi Chris,

I think this is why astral projection is such a fascinating area of enquiry for occultists… of course this is simply a belief, but I see it as infinitely more practical path… I guess my problem with Kabbalah is my resistance to dogma of any kind.

You know I’m a big fan of Astral Projection :) Direct experience has to be, without doubt, far more valuable than the pages of an old dusty book.

Dogman is something that I also struggle with. I think the, “take it on faith” approach that most dogmas depend is really counter to direct experience. The best approach, as I understand things now, is to walk that middle path where one informs the other. Of course, a good (perhaps better?) approach is to learn through direct experience only. Both have there merits as far as I can see.

…when I used to take myself waay too seriously.

LOL, that is the problem though isn’t it? Dogma creates a weird reaction in people; all of a sudden they become soo serious.

Back when I kept a similar gnarly looking diary, I began to think to myself, “hey, this isn’t actually real in anyway”. Once I was able to see that there was no truth to any of it, I finally began to enjoy it. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think that faith and truth are somehow blurred, and that the lines between direct experience and dogma become so in twinned it’s hard to put things in perspective?

Thanks for sharing your ideas :D


chris healey July 1, 2010 at 11:51 pm

Actually… another interesting point to raise here is the similarity of the Runes and the Rune poems (look up rune poem on wikipedia if you haven’t heard of them) to the Kabbalah. The runes were said to have been “received” by Odin when he sacrificed himself on the world tree. Pure speculation, but it seems to me that both are like different versions of the same software. I understand that there are a few Tarot decks that attempt to interlace the runes with the Tarot. I spotted a couple in a well known bookshop in London last time I was down. Perhaps the idea isn’t so outlandish after all.


Douglas Gibb July 9, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Hi Chris,

Interesting! The World Tree of Norse mythology and the Tree-Of-Life of Jewish Mysticism … the link being Trees, and “receiving”!

When I think about it, the symbolic use of Trees is rather popular in most mythologies … that, and ladders!

Good point Chris, thanks for sharing :)


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