How Jews Started Writing Letters To G-d

Did you know that the Israeli Postal Service has an entire department dedicated to letters addressed to G-d? Did you know that no one can accurately trace the tradition of leaving prayer notes in the Western Wall? Did you know that many prominent rabbis would like to abolish the tradition all together? We explore some of the heated debates and captivating accounts of leaving letters for G-d in the venerated cracks of the Western Wall and answer the rousing question of why people leave prayer notes at all

Postcard from 1920s Germany depicting Jews praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. This postcard is part of the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

A story is told of a young boy who visited the Western Wall for the first time. He was perhaps a tad skeptical of its significance and his father watched on nervously as the boy cautiously approached the wall and held out his hand. The young boy’s fingers traced the ancient stone, but the boy retreated and backed off quickly from the wall. A minute later he returned, dragging a chair from the plaza outside, to the surprise of his father. The boy pulled the chair up to the wall and clambered upon it. Standing on his tiptoes he reached up his hand and touched the very tallest stone he could manage, letting a small smile slowly spread across his face.

Photograph of a father and son at the Western Wall from 1973. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel
Image of children inserting notes into the Western Wall from 1978. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Walking away from the Western Wall, hand in hand, the boy’s father asked whether his son had found any significance or emotion in the experience. The boy replied: “father, I felt how smooth the stones were just above ground level, but how rough they were where no hands could reach to touch them. This wall is a place where people rest their heads, grasp the bricks with their hands and let their tears smooth the façade. This is a place of hope and beauty.”

Photograph of men praying at the Western Wall in 1972. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Amidst the cool stones, smoothed and softened by endless hands, little prayers lay curled up between yellowing pages of hopeful notes. From all over the world, people of all walks of life write down their innermost feelings and burry them in the gaps along the face of the Western Wall. Many have come to accept this tradition as standard, but it wasn’t always so, and in fact there are those who would rather that the practice come to a swift end. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Poster of women praying at the Western Wall from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

The Western Wall is a portion of ancient limestone wall in the Old City of Jerusalem which forms part of the large retaining wall of the Temple Mount built by Herod the Great. It is often considered the holiest place in the world for Jews, as it is the closest place that they are permitted to pray outside the Temple Mount. The largest part of the wall is used for prayer and is sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall or the Kotel. It is here that we find thousands of crinkled notes stuffed into its cracks.

Rosh Hashanah greeting card from 1930 Germany, depicting the Western Wall, from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

There is a curious tradition amongst mankind to make our presence known in any place we visit. From the earliest times people were carving their identities into stone, and even today one needn’t look far to find an urban wall brightened by graffitied names: “John woz ‘ere”. Understandably then, during the British Mandate period, the authorities decreed that the Western Wall was too precious to be defaced, in a ruling that follows: “It shall be held… that the Western Wall should not be disfigured by having any engravings or inscriptions placed upon it…and that the Wall should be kept clean and be properly respected.”

Postcard from 1920s Germany depicting Jews praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. This postcard is part of the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

Along with this decree came the presumed end of people writing their heartfelt prayers and wishes on the face of the Western Wall, but it was not so.

Indeed, a new solution had to be found for people to leave behind a lasting memory of their spoken prayers, so the famous tradition of prayer notes was born (or perhaps reborn, as we shall soon see). Initially, those who travelled to the wall to pray would write out their meditations on the spot, placing them directly into the cracks. But as word spread of this venerable tradition, more and more people wanted to take part. Soon it became accepted that anyone travelling to the Western Wall would bring with them the pleas of all their friends and families. Notes would fill all the available spaces and begin to tumble out onto the plaza below.

Photographic image of the Western Wall Plaza from 2014, from the National Library of Israel collection. Photographer: Gabi Laron
A 1992 reproduction of a Morris Kats’ painting, depicting the Western Wall Plaza from the collection of A. Peri Esq. Jerusalem Israel at the National Library of Israel

Yet sources differ regarding the very first occurrence of placing notes in the Western Wall. Rabbi Gedaliah of Semitzi visited the Western Wall in 1699 and was supposedly the first one to record that letters were to be found in the crevices. Others say Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar was the one who first noted this phenomenon.

The Wailing Wall, written by Judith Weinshall Liberman, 2017, Dog Ear Publishing. This children’s book tells the story of a bar mitzvah boy and the magical note he leaves in the Western Wall
A 1978 photograph of a female soldier placing a letter into the Western Wall. Note all the other notes in the cracks of the wall. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Conversely, according to Rabbi Zalman Koren, a great expert of the Western Wall, the tradition dates back to the days of the Chassidim who would give their rebbe notes called kvitlech with names of those who he should bless during prayer. When the rebbe died, these notes would be placed on his grave instead. As Chassidim made their way to Jerusalem in the 1700s, this ritual spread to leaving notes in the Western Wall, a practice then adopted by others.

Photographs of notes left in the Western Wall, 1978, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Photographer: Boris Karmi
Photographs of notes left in the Western Wall, 1978, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Photographer: Boris Karmi

The Book of Remembrance for the late Rabbi Getz, who served as Rabbi of the Western Wall until 2005, disagrees. He tells the moving story of a man who wept over his dying wife. As his tears fell, a heavenly hand passed him a note and a holy voice instructed him: “Go out immediately to the Western Wall, place the note between the stones and you will receive complete healing,” implying that it was already customary to bury notes in the Western Wall nearly 260 years ago.

More biblical sources are also quoted as the root of this tradition. The biblical commentator Ramban notes that the Children of Israel were writing their prayers on notes in order to receive blessings even during the exodus from Egypt, and sources for inscribing prayers in note form can be found in Ezra 9:8 and Isaiah 22:23 too. Clearly there is dispute about the origins of inserting notes into the Western Wall – and fierce competition to be the first person to have remarked upon this tradition. The truth is that we probably don’t know who wrote the first prayer note – in fact, it has surely long since disintegrated, or been buried… which leads us to the next fascinating debate in the world of Western Wall notes.

A printed micrograph from 1979 showing the blueprints for the Western Wall, from the Jeselsohn, David and Jemima Collection at the Israel Museum, in the National Library of Israel collection

The tradition being as old as it is (and how old is that, I’m still confused!) today anyone visiting the Western Wall would have to swim through a sea of letters if it were not for the Jewish law forbidding the desecration of any article containing the name of G-d. Of course, it is impossible to know how many of these little notes contained the name of G-d without hiring a formidable team to open and read each of these private requests, so all the papers must be treated as if they contain those holy letters.

Photograph from the 1940s of Jews inserting notes into the Western Wall. This photograph is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Thus, twice a year before Passover and Rosh Hashanah when hoards of visitors are expected to descend onto the streets of Jerusalem, the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, immerses in the mikve, takes a long wooden stick, and pries all the notes from the wall. He fills over 100 bags full of notes and takes them to the Mount of Olives to be buried.

Image of a woman putting her letter into the Western Wall, 1974. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When Jews leave notes at the graves of holy rabbis, generally these notes get burned, and there is much deliberation in the rabbinical world over whether the same should be done with the Western Wall notes. Burning the notes is “more pure” but burying them shows “more honor” according to many rabbis, giving the proper respect to the notes’ manifold authors.

Postcard depicting people praying at the Western Wall. Notice the engravings of signatures and prayers on the bricks. from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel

So, who are these people writing the notes? Well, everyone! Of course, Jerusalem natives and tourists are the main contributors, but geographical distance is no barrier to having your letter put in the wall. Simply log onto the Western Wall website and type out your prayer. It will be printed anonymously, on size 4 typeface in an illegible font to prevent anyone reading it (don’t worry, G-d has a good pair of eyeglasses), before being hand-placed into the wall. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch also receives hundreds of letters annually, addressed to “G-d, Jerusalem.” He folds up these letters and inserts them, too, in the wall. There is even a fax and email address set up for those who want to send their letters digitally. And of course, an entire department exists in the Israeli Postal Service for the thousands of letters sent to Israel simply addressed “to G-d.” The postal workers take each one and dutifully deliver it to the Western Wall, which would explain why the average Israeli has to wait approximately 781 business days to receive any mail!

Via Twitter, the Israeli Postal Service proves that they send all the letters addressed to G-d to be placed in the Western Wall

Of course, some letters are more high profile than others, although I hear that G-d doesn’t pick favorites. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have placed their prayers into the wall, as well as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Most famously, in 2008 when Barak Obama inserted his note into the wall, it was removed and sold to an Israeli newspaper who published it, to the anger of many.

Not everyone agrees with the idea of putting notes into the Western Wall. Rabbi Zalman Koren famously recounts that many Jews do not bury their requests among the stones of the Western Wall so as not to deface the precious bricks. Rabbi Jacob Joseph agrees that this practice “pollutes” the holy space.

Book of remembrance of Jerusalem. This book contains many of the traditions and sources pertaining to Western Wall. From the Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel collections.
Pamphlet publishing the prayers and customs of the Western Wall, 2009. Found in the National Library of Israel collections

Moreover, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hacohen of Dvinsk clearly states that “Attributing holiness to any object borders on idol worship” and in the bible (2 Kings 18:4) King Hezekiah agrees that worshiping even holy sites and objects is idolatrous.  Thus, modern day rabbis often argue that worshiping the Western Wall by placing notes in its crevices is similarly idolatrous, and the debate rages on.

Poster of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. Notice the men in the background inscribing words into the stones. This poster is part of from the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection held at The National Library of Israel
A 1974 photograph of women praying at the Western Wall. Note all the letters in the cracks of the wall. This image is part of the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

We started with a story, so we shall end with a story: A man told his rabbi that he was going to place a prayer in the Western Wall. “Why?” the rabbi asked, “G-d hears prayers regardless of where you are or how you convey them.” “True, G-d is the same everywhere” replies the man, “but I am not”. The practice of placing notes into the Western Wall is a source of comfort, hope, and encouragement for so many thousands of people, whether in person or via a disgruntled Israeli postal worker. So, debate all you like, it seems that the tradition is here to stay.

Did Medieval Jewish Kabbalists Design the Tarot Deck?

Until the 18th century, tarot cards were simply playing cards. It was then that occult researchers became convinced that these cards in fact held magical properties, and that they contained a secret truth that originated in ancient Egypt and was preserved in Jewish mysticism…

It was during one of the early waves of the COVID pandemic, when the future seemed shrouded in mist and I was spending my time balancing a hectic schedule of frequent afternoon naps and proper nighttime sleep, that I was drawn deep into the world of Tarot. As usually happens when I begin to research an occult doctrine or theory that is new to me, I was apprehensive at first.

On the one hand, I consider myself to be a rational, logical, and sensible person and I knew that there was nothing to fear. On the other hand, maybe this stuff actually worked? A friend had mailed me my first tarot deck, and to quote the Israeli singer-songwriter Meir Ariel, every time I turned to my deck with a question – I immediately felt that the cards were able to “guess me and open themselves up to me”.

As I delved deeper into the history and mythology of Tarot, a question began to form in my mind that even the tarot deck couldn’t provide me with an answer to: were tarot cards influenced by Jewish mysticism – the Kabbalah – with which I was already familiar from my work at the National Library of Israel? How else can one explain the fact that the Sefirot from the Kabbalistic Tree of Life keep showing up in the tarot cards?


The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, consisting of the Sefirot


Many books have dealt with the connection between Tarot and the Kabbalah, and particularly – Tarot’s reliance on the latter. The majority of these books seem to presuppose the connection between the popular card deck and Jewish mainstream mysticism, and don’t feel the need to explain the relationship or prove its existence. But since we are, of course, rational, logical and sensible people, we will need to find the answer to this question within the complex and intricate history of the deck of cards that we refer to as Tarot. So, let’s dive in.

The first appearance of the tarot deck came about in medieval Italy when a new card game called Tarocchi became a hit among the Italian aristocracy. The structure of the new playing deck was different from other card decks of the era, which might have been the reason that an anonymous monk in 1377 decided that the tarot cards were the most complete and accurate representation of the “current state of the world”. And indeed, the first 22 cards in the deck, known as the Major Arcana, depict medieval personas, such as the Emperor, the Empress, the Magician, the Hierophant and the High Priestess. Alongside these, appear cards with conceptual values and symbols: the World, Justice, Temperance, the Wheel of Fortune and Death.

The 56 Minor Arcana cards are organized in a structure that would eventually inspire the playing cards we are familiar with today. The Minor Arcana cards are subdivided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Pentacles (also referred to as Coins), and Swords. Each suit begins with the number one card – which is the Ace – and runs up to the number ten card; following are the four Court cards: the Page, the Knight, the Queen and the King.

The 22 Major Arcana cards in the Rider deck


For centuries, the tarot deck was used as a regular deck of playing cards and for gambling. It was only some 400 years later, in the late 18th century, that the deck was attributed hidden powers. In 1781, a Protestant pastor named Antoine Court de Gébelin published a book dedicated to the tarot deck, and became the first to draw a connection between Tarot and ancient Egyptian theology. During one of his walks through the streets of Paris, Gébelin came across a group of women playing with a tarot deck and determined then and there that these were not ordinary playing cards but an arcane repository of timeless esoteric wisdom. In his ensuing studies he concluded emphatically that the tarot symbols were based on ancient Egyptian wisdom that had made its way to Europe through Jewish Kabbalah.

Although the ancient Egyptian language had not yet been deciphered at the time, the Frenchman asserted that the word “tarot” derived from two ancient Egyptian words: “tar” (road or path), and “ro” (king or royalty). Therefore, according to Gébelin, the meaning of the word “tarot” is, “the king’s path”. When Jean-François Champollion deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822, the etymology provided by Gébelin was revealed to be completely delusional.

Gébelin was not the first to view the ancient Egyptian religion as a significant and unique source of knowledge. Since the Renaissance, the belief had existed in Europe that western culture had its roots in ancient Egyptian theology, that its wisdom was handed-down to ancient Greece through conquest and expansion; and to Judaism (and from there on to Christianity) through Moses.

The innovative book contained a short article by the Comte de Mellet, who followed Gébelin’s esoteric thought, and asserted that the 22 Major Arcana cards are an illustrated representation of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This idea would subsequently become an anchor for those who claimed a direct connection between Tarot and Kabbalah, as flimsy as the evidence may have been: 22 cards correspond to the 22 letters of the alphabet.

Gébelin and de Mellet’s assertions instantly changed the way the tarot deck was perceived, to this day: from a popular pastime for European aristocrats, the tarot decks quickly became associated with fortunetellers, magicians and occultists. In fact, two years after Gébelin’s book was published, Jean-Baptiste Alliette popularized the tarot divination method.

The Death card designed by the occultist, Alliete


Éliphas Lévi further developed Tarot as a key to the great mysteries. This 19th-century French author and poet, born Alphonse Louis Constant, wrote more than twenty esoteric books about Kabbalah, alchemy, and magic. He maintained in his book Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, that “without Tarot, the magic of the ancients is a closed book”.

Lévi likened Tarot to a book. Whereas Alliette designed tarot cards, Lévi elevated the Tarot of Marseilles to the rank of sacred scripture. “One who is confined, with no access to any books aside from the Tarot, can obtain universal wisdom within a few years and proficiently lecture on all subjects unmatched and with undoubtable astuteness”, asserted Lévi, who believed that Tarot’s wisdom preceded even the Law of Moses.

The Tarot of Marseilles is a standard pattern that has been common in Europe since the Middle Ages. Historians trace this deck’s origins to the 15th century, in the northern Italian city of Ferrara. It was named the Tarot of Marseilles, since the city of Marseilles subsequently became a prominent printing center that produced an assortment of decks designed by different artists. Photograph: the version in my possession – the Tarot of Marseilles, designed by Claude Brudel, 1751


Lévi continued Gébelin’s line of thought. He accepted the correlation between the 22 Major Arcana cards and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In addition, he directly associated the first ten cards of each suit with the ten Kabbalistic Sefirot, and contended that each of the four tarot suits corresponds with a letter of God’s name (Y-H-W-H). Within a few decades, Lévi’s tenets reached England, and were circulated and enhanced by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This New Age of tarot and spirituality had begun to take shape.


The Rider-Waite Tarot and the Thoth Tarot Deck

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a secret society that concerned itself with mystical doctrines. The Order was established in 1887, in London. For over a decade, the Order acted in its original configuration until it disbanded and split into various, and at times contentious, groups. One cannot overestimate the Order’s great influence on modern Tarot and Western spiritual movements.

Two members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn would subsequently design the two most influential and popular tarot decks of the New Age declared by the Order. They both deliberately embedded Kabbalistic symbols into their decks—along with emblematic drawings from astrology, Christian mysticism, alchemy, and ancient Egyptian theology. The members were, Arthur Edward Waite, who published his deck in 1909, and Aleister Crowley, whose Thoth deck was published posthumously in 1969.

The Rider-Waite pack is named after the publisher (William Rider) and its mastermind (Arthur Edward Waite). The name given to this deck disregards the essential contribution of the artist who actually designed the deck, Pamela Colman Smith. The major innovations of this deck are the illustrated scenes that Waite and Smith crafted into the Minor Arcana cards – which in the older decks resembled simple playing cards. The Kabbalistic influence is most apparent in the 10th card of the Pentacles suit. In this card, ten Pentacles are arranged in the pattern of the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, superimposed on a scene depicting urban life. The images of the Sefirot and the Tree of Life are central symbols in Kabbalah, visual representations of the divine Sefirot – the ten omnipotent powers of God, who is manifested from Ein-Sof (“the Infinite”) into the material world.

In the accompanying book written by Waite, which details his tarot deck, he made no reference to the Sefirot and the Tree of Life displayed on the card.

Ten of Pentacles (Coins) in a Rider Pack


Ten of Pentacles (Coins), from Tarot de Marseilles


The other clues disseminated by Rider are found in the Major Arcana: The Magician (card no. 1) lifts his right arm to the sky while his left points to the ground – a Kabbalistic emblem that signifies the connection between heaven and earth. The infinity symbol hovers over his head.


In card no. 2, the High Priestess is seen reading the Torah, with Boaz and Jachin, the two pillars of Solomon’s Temple, on either side of her. Waite wrote of the High Priestess, who in the Tarot of Marseilles is called La Papesse (“The Popess”): “In a manner, she is […] the Supernal Mother herself – that is to say, she is the bright reflection. It is in this sense of reflection that her truest and highest name in bolism is Shekinah – the co-habiting glory. According to Kabalism, there is a Shekinah both above and below.” This is one of the few instances in Waite’s commentary in which he interprets one of his tarot cards using a Kabbalistic symbol – the Shekinah or Shechinah, which is the last of the Kabbalistic Sefirot, and the female essence of the divine.


The Lovers card (no. 6) – in older decks, the card depicts a young, enamored couple with Cupid floating overhead, while in Rider’s deck the couple transforms into the naked Adam and Eve with the angel of God poised over them.

The Lovers, from the Marseilles Tarot deck, after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s restoration


The Lovers, from the Rider Tarot deck


The Wheel of Fortune tarot card (no. 10), features a wheel adorned with the Hebrew letters י-ה-ו-ה”” (Y-H-W-H, the divine name), and on its four sides stand the four “living creatures”, the animals described in the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel, each reading a book. In the older tarot decks, this card was called “The Wheel”, and the four creatures did not appear.

And these are just the most obvious clues.

Even though Waite published his tarot deck, he did not elaborate on his interpretation of the cards. In this sense, Waite was a faithful follower of Golden Dawn, an order whose members were not expected to impart its substance and secrets outside of its private circle.

With Aleister Crowley, the opposite was true. One of the reasons he was expelled from the Order was his reckless distribution of manuscripts and artwork compiled and composed by members of the Order. Of the two, Crowley was the one who put a particular emphasis on Kabbalah.

A Thoth Tarot deck together with the accompanying book written by Aleister Crowley

As early as the introduction in his book, after detailing the Tarot structure (Major and Minor Arcana), Crowley asserts that this structure might appear “arbitrary, but it is not. It is necessitated, as will appear later, by the structure of the universe, and in particular of the Solar System, as symbolized by the Holy Qabalah. This will be explained in due course”.

Thus, in a single paragraph, Crowley explains how he understands the Kabbalah: the Sefirot symbolize the universe, and not the ten omnipotent powers or qualities of God, as they do in traditional Kabbalah. Crowley combines astrology and Kabbalah in his interpretation of the tarot deck. And it seems that most of the cards refer to at least some aspect of Kabbalah – particularly one of the ten Sefirot. Many examples can be offered, but we’ll settle for two that stood out to us.

Card number 10 in the suit of Swords, called “Ruin”:


Crowley expounded on the deck he crafted in the book that accompanied the Thoth cards. His own interpretation of this card begins with:

“The number Ten, Malkuth [kingship/kingdom], as always, represents the culmination of the unmitigated energy of the idea. It shows reason run mad, ramshackle riot of soulless mechanism; it represents the logic of lunatics and (for the most part) of philosophers. This is reason divorced from reality.”

“The hilts of the Swords occupy the positions of the Sephiroth, but the points One to Five and Seven to Nine touch and shatter the central Sword (six), which represents the Sun, the Heart, the child of Chokmah [the wisdom Sefirah] and Binah [understanding].”

Another clear Kabbalistic influence appearing in Crowley’s deck is found in the Wealth card in the Pentacles suit, which Crowley referred to as the Disk suit: disks arranged as the Sefirot in the Tree of Life, with the central disk featuring the name of the Archangel Raphael, written in Hebrew.


Frieda Harris, who designed Crowley’s deck of cards, claimed that the tarot cards that originated in Egypt were lost. And so, the illustrator of the most peculiar and mysterious deck of tarot provided the most peculiar and mysterious claim about their origin: she claimed that Jewish Kabbalists were responsible for redesigning the tarot deck in the Middle Ages. The majority of advocates of the secret connection between Kabbalah and Tarot make a claim that is much more subtle: that medieval tarot illustrators were influenced by the Kabbalah, which was itself shaped by Egyptian theology, and that these influences were hidden among medieval images and personas such as the Emperor and the Hierophant.

Arthur Waite made another intriguing claim. He flat out rejected the idea that Tarot originated in ancient Egypt. By analyzing the two Arcana he understood that these were two disassociated decks that had been deliberately united in Europe. The inception of the tarot cards, therefore, is an unsolvable enigma. Historical research supports this conclusion. The tarot deck is a combination of ordinary playing cards and others featuring allegoric imagery. So indeed, Waite was correct.


The Kabbalah in Support of Tarot

In this article, we referred to the term Kabbalah, without expounding on its essence. It is important to emphasize that the two deck creators – Waite and Crowley – were influenced by the Christian interpretation of Kabbalah, rather than the Jewish Kabbalah. Christian Kabbalah, as this interpretation was termed, flourished in Europe as early as the 15th century, and its main objective was to promote Christian dogma while utilizing  Jewish Kabbalistic symbols.

Despite their differences in approach, it was not the intention of the creators of the two most prominent modern decks of Tarot to endorse Christian dogma. Waite and Crowley both believed that applying Kabbalistic aspects would allow them to restore the original, natural religion that preceded Christianity, and thus bring forth a New Age in which man would knock the gods off of their divine perch, and fashion a new life for himself, in his own way, according to his own wishes.

In line with the notion that the tarot cards symbolize the universe, Crowley altered card no. 21 – the World card – to the Universe card


Crowley was radical in everything he did, and even asserted that he aimed to replace Christianity with a new-ancient religion revolving around the Egyptian deity Horus, and thus he felt he was permitted to alter the original pack as he saw fit. Arthur Waite negated the concept of Tarot’s Egyptian origins, and the deck he and Pamela Colman Smith illustrated remains the closest to the older tarot decks. It is also currently the most prominent and accepted pack, and the one which the majority of new Tarot artists base their illustrations on.

The New Age concepts that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn members promoted, later became the New Age that we are quite familiar with today. The New Age reverted its gaze from Egypt, and beginning in the 1860s, turned to the true Far East: India and China.

The World card in the Tarot and Cats deck, designed by Thiago Corrêa


The World card in the Rider Tarot


And what does academia have to say about the matter? Gershom Scholem, who was the founder of the modern academic study of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, utterly dismissed the Golden Dawn’s modern analysis of Kabbalah (this was a typical attitude of Scholem’s). Although he had some respect for Éliphas Lévi and his “erroneous but brilliant” analyses, he referred to Crowley as a “gaudy imposter” and determined that “it is pointless to waste words on Crowley’s ‘Kabbalistic’ writings and what he called “magic” in his books and his periodical ‘The Equinox’.” The scandalous notions and interpretations of Crowley and similar figures led Scholem to advocate for “a redemption of this forsaken field [the study of Kabbalah] by applying rigid rules of historical research. I am committed to this mission”.

So who was right? Does the tarot deck really have secret and possibly prophetic powers? Are these forces obtained from the Kabbalah? And is it possible for us to come to any conclusion? A fabulous way to circumvent the need for an unequivocal and clear conclusion was offered by the psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung, Freud’s prodigious student. Jung proposed to view Tarot as a direct path to our subconscious. A way to penetrate our deepest thoughts, to self-explore our place in the world and make sense of our own lives. I prefer this approach to the common mystical analysis. Because even if the cards do provide an answer to my question, isn’t the knowledge really emanating from my inner self and subconscious?



Further Reading

Aleister Crowley, The Book of Thoth (Samuel Weiser, Inc. 1985)

Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (U.S. Games Systems, Inc., 1989)

Robert Wang, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy (Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1983)

מורן גאם-כהן, גלגוליה של הקבלה דרך העולם הנוצרי עד ה”עידן החדש” על ידי בחינת מסדר “שחר הזהב”, עבודת גמר עבור תואר מוסמך בחוג למחשבת ישראל באוניברסיטה העברית, שנת 2011

אורי רז, האתר טארוט

גרשם שלום, זרמים ראשיים במיסטיקה היהודית, הוצאת משכל, 2016




“Nor shall you follow their laws”? The Influence of Islamic Mysticism on Judaism

A look at the subtle influence of Islamic mysticism on Jewish worship and thought from the Middle Ages to the present

Abraham, son of Maimonides, was born to greatness. As the only son of the great Jewish thinker, he was educated from childhood to inherit his father’s role.

Rabbi Abraham eventually did inherit his father’s position as head of the Jewish community in Egypt. But when he came to lead the Jewish community and strengthen its adherence to Judaism, he revealed himself to be deeply influenced by the Islamic mystical movement of Sufism. This influence is evident in his writings and halakhic rulings, as for example in his innovation of washing the feet as well as the hands before prayer. He based this novel practice on a single Talmudic source that had been rejected by the Sages, though the true influence clearly came from the Islamic culture and tradition that surrounded him.

Rabbi Abraham Maimonides rejected the criticism that he was imitating the customs of the Gentiles in two ways: first, by grounding his innovations in Jewish sources, however esoteric and unique, and second, by asserting that imitating Muslims did not amount to a violation of Leviticus 18:3 –

“You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.”

Even before Rabbi Abraham’s time, Sufi influence on the Jewish pietistic movement was a well-known phenomenon.

Bahya ibn Paquda, who was born in 1050 in Zaragoza, Spain, wrote Hovot HaLevavot (“The Duties of the Heart”), the first known book in this tradition. The structure of Hovot HaLevavot is a series of “gates” that lead the reader along a spiritual path at the end of which he will discover, as the tenth gate states, “true love for God may He be exalted.” The structure is analogous to Sufism which is also made up of stations whose purpose is to gradually bring the believer to the exact same point. Originally written in Judeo-Arabic, the book uses Islamic and non-Jewish expressions to describe God. The author makes use of the phrase Hashem yit’aleh (“God will rise”) in Hebrew, which corresponds to the Arabic Allah yita’alah. Another Hebrew phrase that appears in the book is Hashem yitromem veyitnaseh, (“God will rise up and be exalted”), corresponding to Allah ‘azz wa-jal in Arabic.

In addition to the Muslim phrases, Ibn Paquda quotes Islamic sources as validation for his own words. For example, he quotes the Egyptian Islamic mystic Dhul-Nun al-Misri (d. 859), in a chapter dedicated to proving God’s presence in the world: “He who knows God the most is the most humble in relation to Him.” Later in the same chapter, while discussing the comprehension of God’s divine nature, he writes: “It is more fitting to say this about the Creator of everything, that ‘There is nothing like unto Him'”, making use of a quote from the Quran (42:11).

Manuscript of Hovot HaLevavot, 14th century

The book’s structure suggests that it may not be the first composition of this type, but it is the earliest that has been preserved to the present day. Even today, Hovot HaLevavot remains popular and is considered a fundamental book in the fields of faith and musar (morality). The book has been published recently in both a scientific edition and one that is divided into short chapters intended for daily study especially around the period of Sliḥot before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year)

The difference in the popularity of the two authors is due to the fact that while Rabbi Abraham Maimonides wrote with the goal of educating his immediate community, Ibn Paquda wrote for a more generalized audience of Jews, regardless of their existing spiritual knowledge or understanding.

The Sufi movement and its values ​​contributed greatly to the development of Judaism, from the coining of the concept of heshbon nefesh (lit. “an accounting of the soul”), as in a personal reckoning, which did not exist until the appearance of Hovot HaLevavot, through the development of musar literature, to inspiring the emphasis on kavanat halev (lit. the “intention of the heart”), that is mindfulness in the act of fulfilling the commandments.

Separation: The Origin of the Women’s Section in the Synagogue

Some of us find it hard to believe that in Talmudic times women and men prayed together in the synagogue. When did a separate gallery for women become mandatory in Orthodox synagogues, and how did the separation of men and women in the prayer service come about?

Women praying at the Western Wall, 1914, the Yad Ben Zvi Archive

The Jewish sages founded the institution of the synagogue in the days before the Second Temple’s destruction. From the moment of its establishment, it faced a pressing issue: Could women pray there together with the men? And if so, how? Throughout Jewish history, from the destruction of the Temple to the present day a variety of approaches have been used to address this issue in various communities with diverse institutions and houses of prayer built accordingly.

The sages interpreted the biblical commandment “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 11:19),  to mean: “Your sons and not your daughters,” thereby exempting women from learning Torah. But others challenged this statement and objected to women being denied the ability to study Torah.

Synagogue des Tournelle, Paris. The photo is part of a photography project of women’s galleries in synagogues by photographer Aviv Yitzhak


Unlike the issue of whether women should or should not study the Torah, there was never any question that it was the right and even the duty of every Jew—man or woman—to listen and take part in the prayer. It was generally accepted that the men lead the prayer and read from the Torah, while women are permitted to listen.


The Days of Praying Together

The Mishnah and the Talmud are full of examples of women who regularly participated in prayer in public, by either reading from the Torah or listening to a sermon in the synagogue or study house. But where did the women congregate when they came to pray and listen? In this article we will try to locate the origins of the ezrat nashim, the women’s section or gallery in the synagogue.

When the synagogue was founded in the days of the Second Temple, there was no separate women’s section, nor any partition inside the physical structure. Therefore, according to the religious law of the time, women were required to sit and pray alongside the men. Today, in most Orthodox synagogues, the presence of women in the same prayer space as men would be viewed as inappropriate, but in the time of the great Jewish sages it was a routine occurrence.

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria told of synagogues in Alexandria where women and men prayed in the same hall, but in separate locations. Women’s participation in prayer was an agreed and accepted practice and was not even affected by the prohibition against women’s appearance in public (on the grounds of protecting their modesty).

To be able to participate in prayer requires basic literacy. Documents in the Cairo Genizah show that women received a Jewish education at home and learned to read and write so that, among other things, they could take part in prayer. A girl’s father was responsible for her education, and in rare cases adult women tutored girls. Additional evidence from the Cairo Genizah shows that in medieval Egyptian society, women, especially Jewish women, were granted freedom of occupation and economic independence, with some even becoming rich. These wealthy women often contributed to the construction and renovation of synagogues and their upkeep, as well as financing oil for the lamps so that the worshipers could study at night.


From the Women’s Gate to the Women’s Gallery

So when did today’s familiar partitions first appear? It seems that for hundreds of years the term ezrat nashim, meaning women’s gallery, was not in use at all. The renowned scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein presented several sources from the Genizah dealing with the sha’ar nashim, the “women’s gate” in the synagogues of Egypt, proving that in the 11th century at the latest, special entrances were created for women through which they would go up to a gallery above the main hall, where they could then participate in prayer.

The term beit knesset nashim, “women’s synagogue,” first appeared among Ashkenazi Jews in the 12th century. But while the “women’s gate” in the synagogues in Egypt was an entrance to a gallery that separated the men from the women in the same space, the “women’s synagogue” in Ashkenaz was a physical structure separate from the “general” synagogue. The buildings were sometimes located at a distance from one another, but surprisingly, while the individual prayer services for men and the women were held in these separate locations, when the sermon began, the women would join the men in their hall and would either sit alongside them or a partition would be put up.

Apparently, the first exception to this rule was the synagogue in Worms in Germany. This synagogue was built in 1175, and a women’s gallery was added in 1213. An inscription on the wall of the building is the earliest evidence of the existence of a women’s gallery as a separate room in the synagogue next to the men’s section.

The synagogue in Worms to which a women’s gallery was added. Above: the building façade. Below: the inscription on the wall of the synagogue. Photos: courtesy of Prof. Rachel Elior]


With the establishment of the “women’s synagogue” in the Middle Ages, a new creative world of women’s prayer flourished, featuring women poets, prayer leaders and cantors. The tombstone of one such Jewish woman, Ornea, daughter of the cantor Rabbi Abraham of Worms, who died in 1275, features the epitaph: “This headstone was erected for the lady Ornea, the exceptional and esteemed woman, daughter of Rabbi Abraham, chief of the poets, whose prayer was glory, who with a pleasant voice petitioned on behalf of his people, and she too in a sweet voice, sang hymns for women.”

Women such as Ornea, who were called sagerke and firsagerin in Yiddish, served as readers and poets who read or sang the words of the prayers for the illiterate in the women’s gallery.

Only in the 17th century were the practices that had appeared in Egypt centuries earlier adopted in Ashkenaz, with partitions and galleries erected, thus enabling the merger of the men’s and women’s synagogues. The widespread use of the term ezrat nashim in the sense of a “women’s gallery” stems from this time.  The Venetian Rabbi Leone Modena (1571–1648) wrote the following about the women’s section in his local synagogue: “And in the room there is a special place above or on the side with a wooden lattice, where the women stand to pray and watch everything that happens in the synagogue, but they are not visible to the eyes of the men and do not interfere with them in the prayer service so that the intention of the prayer is not corrupted by sinful or criminal thoughts.” And so, in a single sentence, Rabbi Modena clarified the theological and historical rationale for the partition separating men and women.


Praying in the Basement

In France, on the other hand, women’s galleries, which were still called women’s synagogues, were established below the ground floor of the synagogue. The Swiss traveler Thomas Platter, who visited Avignon in 1599, described the town’s women’s synagogue as a basement into which light penetrated from the room above through a hole in the floor. Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azoulai, also known as the Hida, visited France more than a century later, noting in his book Ma’agal Ha-Tov: “After the prayer we traveled from Avignon to Cavaillon and I lodged in the home of Yisrael HaCohen […] and under the synagogue there is a women’s synagogue and there are shafts on the floor of the synagogue from where they see the Torah scroll and they have a cantor who prays for women in the local language.” This had also been the custom in the women’s galleries in synagogues in Spain, where the prayer was apparently conducted in the local Spanish or Catalan language, and not in Hebrew.

The women’s gallery in the synagogue in Cordoba, Spain. Photo: Tulum, Wikipedia


There were even more restrictions for women in the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. Documents in the Cairo Genizah offer proof of the strict limitations placed on women’s movement. The Ashkenazi traveler R. Petahiya of Regensburg, who, around the year 1175, travelled to the Islamic lands, wrote with amazement that “in the city of Baghdad there are a thousand Jews […] and no one sees a single woman there and no one goes to his friend’s house, lest he see his friend’s wife; he would immediately say to him: ‘Thief, why did you come?’ Rather, hitting a tin [knocker], he [the friend] comes out and speaks with him.” And on the rare occasions that a woman was seen on the street, the traveler pointed out, she was made to wrap herself “until she has covered her entire body with a shawl like a tallit.” And so, the adoption of the institution of the women’s gallery in the synagogue allowed women a gathering place of their own in a society that severely restricted women’s rights.

There were places where women were completely excluded from prayer. This was the custom in Yemen, as noted by the researcher Vered Madar: “There was no women’s gallery in the synagogues in Yemen. Women were completely excluded from taking any part in intellectual life or the world of Torah study in Yemen.”

Drawing from the manuscript Sefer Sod H[ashem]. We have noticed that in scenes of synagogues in Hebrew manuscripts women are either absent entirely or depicted on the margins. In this illustration of a circumcision, the godmother is allowed to bring the child to the entrance of the synagogue but no further as she is forbidden from entering the main hall along with the men. Click here to view the manuscript in the National Library of Israel catalog

And what was the situation in the Land of Israel? “The women’s section was shrouded in darkness, there were no lightbulbs, and only a little light penetrated through the wooden lattice used as a partition between the men and women,” writes the scholar and Orientalist Yaakov Yehoshua about his childhood in Jerusalem at the turn of the 20th century. The synagogues in Jerusalem contained women’s galleries that were usually situated on the floor above the main sanctuary. Religious regulations in 19th-century Jerusalem show an increasing severity in restrictions placed on women in the synagogue. First women were forbidden from listening to the “Kaddish Batra” recited at the end of the prayer service, to ensure that the women would leave the synagogue before the men and not mingle with them. In 1854, the regulations became even more strict, so that “no woman under forty years of age shall go to the synagogue for afternoon or evening prayer […] either on the weekday or on Shabbat except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” In other words, young women were banished from prayer on weekdays and were only allowed to participate on the High Holy Days because “on these days they would wait in the women’s gallery in order to allow the men to leave first and avoid meeting them.”

Despite the attempts at exclusion, even in Jerusalem of the late 19th and early 20th century, women managed to find their way “into the synagogues”. Historian Margalit Shilo, in her book on the female experience in the Jerusalem of that period, writes, “The poorest among them saw to the physical needs of the synagogue, such as the preparation of candle wicks, while the rich raised funds, and sometimes even financed the construction of synagogues. In 1913, there were six synagogues in the Holy City that were founded from donations of Jerusalem women and were even named after them.”

The construction of a partition at the Western Wall was forbidden during the Ottoman period, and therefore, writes Shilo, “women preferred to visit holy sites, such as the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb, and the graves of the righteous rather than their place in the synagogues because it was a clear expression of their exclusion from the camp.” Indeed, in postcards and photos dating from the early 20th century to the beginning of the British mandate, men and women are seen praying together at the Western Wall.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem in a postcard from 1911. From the Bitmuna Collection


And as the partition and women’s gallery took root across the Jewish world, it is interesting to discover that the first place where the partition was abolished and joint prayers were held for women and men was the old medieval synagogue in Worms—the first to have installed a partition. The change occurred in 1834, when during a thorough renovation of the synagogue structure the partition was removed and from that moment on men sat on the right side and women on the left inside the sanctuary. Today, in Reform and Conservative synagogues, male and female worshipers sit together.


Jewish Women’s Solidarity

In the 20th century, the term ezrat nashim, which up to that point had signified the physical and symbolic partition between women and men, was given a new meaning in the sense of Jewish women’s solidarity (ezrat nashim can also be translated as “Women’s aid”). In 1901, the Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden (“Relief Organization of German Jews”) was established in Germany. Its women’s branch was known as Ezrat Nashim. This was a pioneering Jewish organization that worked to protect and improve the lives of Jewish women everywhere. In 1902, the organization sent Bertha Pappenheim, one of the pioneers of Jewish social work, to Galicia to examine social conditions in the region that had suffered terrible pogroms. There she was exposed for the first time to the female trafficking industry, in which tens of thousands of Jewish girls and women were sold into prostitution by Jewish procurers who deceived them with false promises of decent work in South America.

Following her activity on this issue, Pappenheim was the first woman in the Jewish world to call for equal opportunities in employment and education for women and men, and the first to work for the integration of women into the field of Torah study and into community life. In her view, a decisive factor that allowed human traffickers to exploit and enslave Jewish girls from Eastern Europe was the girls’ tremendous ignorance, which resulted from the lack of education imposed on them by their communities.

Bertha Pappenheim at age 22. Photo from the Bellevue Sanatorium Archive, Germany


The archive of the League of Jewish Women is currently preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Faced with the many attempts to exclude them from active participation in prayer, Jewish women throughout history have found other ways to make themselves present in the synagogue: by donating to the construction and renovation of synagogues, through crafts such as sewing Torah curtains and covers or by supplying candles. And as we mentioned, from the 13th century to the 20th century, in Germany, Eastern Europe and Italy, women led other women in prayer, while elsewhere women composed hymns and poems for their female peers.

Any historical examination of the place of women in the synagogue, and in Judaism more broadly, will encounter a central and glaring difficulty: the lives of Jewish women have often been ignored by the men whose writings we rely on as primary historical sources. And yet, if there is a clear voice that emerges from the sources, it is of the Jewish women who treated the synagogue as an important meeting place for their religious and communal lives.


Further Reading:

Women and the Synagogue, Edited by Susan Grossman & Rivka Haut (The Jewish Publication Society, 1992)

עדי אוסט, מעמד האישה בתלמוד, מתוך “הפרוטוקולים של צעירי בצלאל”, 2010

רחל אליאור, סבתא לא ידעה קרוא וכתוב: על הלימוד ועל הבּוּרוּת, על השעבוד ועל החירות, ירושלים הוצאת כרמל, 2018

ש. ד. גויטיין, יציע נשים בבנין בית הכנסת בתקופת הגאונים, תרביץ לג (תשכ”ד)

בטחה הר-שפי, נשים בקיום מצוות בשנים 1350-1050 בין הלכה למנהג, חיבור לשם קבלת תואר דוקטור לפילוסופיה, האוניברסיטה העברית, תשס”ב

ורד מדר, שירי נשים מתימן ליולדות וקינותיהן על מתים: טקסט, גוף וקול, חיבור לשם קבלת תואר דוקטור, האוניברסיטה העברית, 2011

שמואל ספראי, האם הייתה קיימת עזרת נשים בבית הכנסת בתקופה העתיקה, תרביץ לב (תשכ”ג)

מרגלית שילה, נסיכה או שבויה? החוויה הנשית של היישוב הישן בירושלים 1914-1840, (זמורה-ביתן, 2001)