Yalta – The First Jewish Feminist

If you haven’t heard of Yalta yet, it’s okay – many people haven’t. But as the second most mentioned woman in the Talmud, Yalta does deserve more fame, especially as her daring escapades left many speechless. Often described as the ‘first Jewish feminist,’ Yalta was a leading woman of the time, going around smashing barrels of wine, adjudicating for women’s issues, contradicting the highest regarded rabbis, and rewriting ancient laws to finally include women in Jewish practices

"Miriam" by Laura James. Cover art for "Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne" - Wilda C. Gafney. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, National Library of Israel collections

There is a general frustrating tradition to render women in the Talmud nameless. At most, one can occasionally expect a side note mentioning “the wife of so and so.” But amongst the few named women in the Talmud is a strong-willed, brave person who could reliably be described as Judaism’s first feminist – or at least the first Jewish feminist to be so outspoken about her beliefs.

“Miriam” by Laura James. Cover art for Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne – Wilda C. Gafney. Published by Westminster John Knox Press, National Library of Israel collections. Cover art – Miriam by Laura James

The Babylonian Rabbi, Rabbah bar Avuha, was a student of the famous Rav – Abba bar Aybo – and a sage in the second generation of the amoraim, the Jewish scholars who lived from 200-500 CE and codified many of the teachings of the Oral Torah. He resided in Babylonia where he became a religious judge. Rabbah bar Avuha was also related to the exilarchs, the leaders of the Jewish community in Persian Mesopotamia, and may have been an exilarch himself. This afforded him prominence as both a rabbinical authority and a nobleman within Persia. According to legend, he was also a friend of the prophet Elijah who gave him leaves from paradise, making him rich, but it’s up to you to decide for yourself whether he gained his wealth through his political prowess, or encounters with prophets in the Garden of Eden.

Either way, he was able to provide a nice quality of life, by 200 CE standards, for his family. His family included one daughter with a larger-than-life personality: Yalta. This very Yalta is the second most-mentioned woman in the Talmud (the first most-mentioned woman in the Talmud is the daughter of Rav Chisda.)

Cover art by David Parkhurst for Rav Hisda’s daughter: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery. Book I, Apprentice – Maggie Anton. Published by Plume, National Library of Israel collections

But before we get to Yalta, we must first meet her husband – in an article about feminism it is a tad ironic to insist on putting the man first, but chronology is chronology!

Rav Nachman bar Yaakov was a student of our friend Rabbah bar Avuha, and he also served as the chief justice of the Jews who were subject to the exilarch, so in a way the two men were also contemporaries. Rav Nachman certainly had his own achievements, including being the head of the school of Nehardea, but he had a slightly wacky personality, to say the least. For one thing, his ego was sizable (Sanhedrin 98b, Sanhedrin 5a, Bava Metzia 66a). He also had a raging superiority complex and would treat those who he saw as below him (which was nearly everyone) poorly.

When Rabbah bar Avuha’s yeshiva was destroyed, Rav Nachman offered him the head position at his own school. In return, Rabbah bar Avuha offered him a wife. A fair trade, don’t you think? Thus it was that Yalta married Rav Nachman, and they lived happily ever after, enjoying a great degree of comfort.

Jewish Identity in American Art: A Golden Age Since the 1970sMatthew Baigell. Cover art by Matthew Baigell. Published by Syracuse University Press, National Library of Israel collections

But it wasn’t always a quiet life, for, as mentioned, Yalta was a bright spark and would often stand up for what she believed in. Many stories can be told to exemplify her fiery character, but none is so prominent as the story told in Berachot 51b. Yalta and her husband were hosting a meal in their home, at which the renowned Rabbi Ulla was eating. After saying their blessings upon concluding the meal, men and their guests would pass around a Cup of Blessing filled with wine, giving each recipient the chance to say a prayer for their own good fortune. On this occasion Rabbi Ulla was given the honor of leading the blessing, and once he was finished, he ignored Yalta and gave the cup straight to Rav Nachman. Rav Nachman, a loving husband, or perhaps a husband seeking to avoid a marital dispute, asked Ulla to pass the cup to Yalta.

“Babylonian Talmud,” Gail Renlund. Cover art for Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice – Judith Hauptman. Published by Westview Press, National Library of Israel collections

Ulla replied “The issue of a woman’s womb is blessed only through the issue of a man’s belly (Deuteronomy 7:13.)” In effect, Ulla was telling the table that women only conceive because of the blessings of their husbands, and that it is pointless and even wasteful to include women in the sacred Cup of Blessing practice as their spiritual satisfaction can only come via a man. He also relegated womankind in supposing that all they should be concerned to pray for is childbirth, and ignored the fact that maybe Yalta wanted to pray for something other than having children – (gasp!) To avoid all doubt, it is worth mentioning that Ulla’s claims were unfounded and his exclusion of women directly contradicts what is relayed in the Torah itself, but that’s not the point here.

Women Praying at the Western Wall,” L. Genut. Cover art for The Women of the Talmud Judith Z. Abrams, published by J. Aronson, National Library of Israel collections

Yalta was furious. She stood up from the table, ran into the storeroom, and smashed 400 barrels of wine, obliterating hundreds of cups of wine at the refusal of her one. Rav Nachman implored Ulla to reconsider his decision to ostracize Yalta and Ulla reluctantly obliged, but he wasn’t going to go down so easily. Ulla found a new, comically large and less beautiful cup and handed it to Yalta for the blessing, mocking her request to join in and branding it as greedy. This unsubtle dig seemed to be aimed at women in general, as if to ask – “You want wine now too? Is it not enough that you get the privilege of serving men while owning nothing and being someone else’s property? Fine – I’ll give you wine! I’ll give you loads of wine!”  But don’t worry, Yalta wasn’t going to stand for his mockery, and demanding the last word, she took the cup from him while proclaiming “from travelers come tall tales and from rag pickers lice,” in effect completely illegitimizing both Ulla’s opinion and character.

Yalta:  A Talmudic Novel – Rochama Weiss. Cover art by Dov Abramson Studios. Compiled by Leah Schnir. Published by United Kibbutz Publishing House, National Library of Israel collections

Maybe breaking so many barrels of wine seems a tad overreactive, but a second opinion states that she only broke the seals on the barrels. Yalta was upset that she wasn’t able to partake in the sacred act of blessing, and she wanted to show that her desire was not in vain but in a noble effort to include women in this commandment. The Torah teaches that when something is destroyed for a reason (including to teach a lesson), there is a lift on the prohibition of wanton destruction. Moreover, the number 400 has the same numerical value as ayin hara, “the evil eye”. Ulla had acted in an unjust way, so to show him what real justice meant, Yalta broke the seals on the barrels of wine and distributed their contents to underprivileged people, so that they could use the wine at their own meals.

Beruria the Tannait: A Theological Reading of a Female Mishnaic Scholar – Dalia Hoshen. Cover art by Rowman & Littlefield. Published by University Press of America, National Library of Israel collections

Yalta wasn’t just concerned with expressing her opinions in alcohol-related escapades. At a time when a woman having an opinion was unthinkable, let alone unheard, Yalta would actually advise her husband on different matters. On one occasion (Kiddushin 70b,) she instructed Rav Nachman to distance himself from those who wouldn’t respect his opinion, and he obliged, going as far as to show one adversary a note with Yalta’s advice and explaining that he would defer to his wife and leave the uncivil discussion at once.

Halakhic Literature and Talmudic Commentaries Responsa, concerning a rebellious wife. Published, with translation, by Friedman, Jewish Law Annual 4. Cambridge University Library, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

This brave woman didn’t always need her husband to stand up for her, though. When she received a ruling from a rabbi concerning her menstruation and the Jewish laws of family purity, she felt dissatisfied with the rabbinical ruling. Not one to simply accept her fate, she took matters into her own hands and sought out a new Rabbi who would give her an answer that she could accept (Niddah 20b.)

Yalta was able to understand that she hadn’t been given an optimal ruling by the first rabbi because of her vast medical knowledge (Gittin 67b) and understanding of the intersection between Jewish law and medical ethics, an area of study still being discussed today, 1800 years later! Yalta was educated by her father, to the shock of many, and became a learned woman. Had she been born a mere few thousand years later she might have become a doctor or a scholar herself. As it was, she had to be content standing up to rabbis and making religious rulings for herself (Chullin 109b.)

Paraphrases of Talmudic sources concerning women. Cambridge University Library, “Ktiv” Project, the National Library of Israel

It was perhaps because of this that her guidance was so sought out by those around her, especially women (surprise surprise!) In fact, her guidance was so necessary to her community that on Shabbat, when it was generally forbidden to carry anyone in a sedan chair, her ever-doting husband allowed Yalta to be carried into town to speak to her disciples (Beitzah 25b.)

Women and Womanhood in the Talmud – Shulamit Valler, translated by Betty Sigler Rozen, published by Brown Judaic Studies, National Library of Israel collections

What is interesting is that Yalta’s husband wasn’t exactly at the forefront of the feminist movement himself. One might go as far as calling him a misogynist, and they would have serious reason to do so. While serving as the judge in a theft trial, he dismissed the claims of the wronged party (Sukkah, 31a.) Having had her business stolen from her she was understandably distressed. But Rav Nachman dismissed the entire case with a crass statement that “she is a noisy woman.”

And it is true that Rav Nachman was not much one for outspoken women. He even went so far as to decry prophets themselves for the simple sin of being female. “It is not seemly for women to be conceited” he said, continuing that “the two prophetesses Deborah and Huldah had hateful names, namely, ‘bee’ and ‘weasel’” (Megillah 41b.) Even the women anointed with prophecy by G-d himself were, sadly, still women in the eyes of Rav Nachman and thus should not have been speaking in public, unlike his wife.

Jewish Feminism: Framed and Reframed – Esther Fuchs. Published by Lexington Books, National Library of Israel collections

If this is how he spoke of the prophetesses, you can imagine how he treated his female slaves (reportedly, his treatment was – “without regard to their moral sensibilities.”). So how could he stand up for his wife’s blatant acts of empowerment while vilifying the other women around him? One might guess that it was love which drove him to abandon his sexism and support his wife, but Rav Nachman was certainly not so loyal to Yalta. Once, when traveling to the city of Shchenziv he told his men to bring him a woman who could act as his ‘wife’ during his time in the city. His plan was to divorce her when he left the town and return to the none-the-wiser Yalta at home (Yoma 18b.)

So if it was not love, what did draw Rav Nachman to Yalta, this proto-feminist of huge proportions? Feminist scholars flocked to Yalta’s ideas (Niddah 20b) about the laws of niddah (Jewish laws pertaining to menstruation,) and even today’s rabbis sing praises for the revolutionary standpoints of Yalta.

Maybe it was her “assertiveness and forcefulness” which scared Rav Nachman into doing what she said? Maybe we can believe the theory that he only married her after her former husband’s demise, and both age and pity led him to accept her nature? But the favored answer is that he was simply aware of her goodness and truthfulness. Yalta’s very name means truth. The numerical value of the name Yalta adds up to 441, which is the same value as the Hebrew word for truth – emet. As Ben Yehoyada said “her proper and truthful actions spoke for themselves.”

Miriam Leading” by Jackie Olenick. Cover art for The Women of the Torah: Commentaries From the Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah – Barbara L. Thaw Ronson. Published by J. Aronson, National Library of Israel collections

What is certain is that Yalta broke the glass ceiling before we even had a term for it. She wouldn’t have called herself a feminist because the movement hadn’t even been thought of, let alone vocalized. But being the second most mentioned woman in the Talmud comes with a responsibility to stand up for womankind and in this respect it’s fair to say that Yalta exceeded with flying colors.

The Woman Who Ignited the Hasmonean Rebellion

Very few know her story. It isn’t taught in schools and certainly not in kindergartens, but according to the midrash, Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, sister of the Maccabees, was a key figure in the Hanukkah story. What does the midrash tell us of the woman who stood up to protect her Jewish sisters? How did she use her wedding day to spark the fire of rebellion in her brothers?


Elizabeth Richman holding a jug, 1926. Courtesy of Archive Network Israel in collaboration with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

According to the midrash, the entire Hanukkah miracle is based on the act of one brave (and today largely forgotten) woman who dared to speak aloud what everyone else knew but would not say. Her declaration led her brothers to start a rebellion. She was the true heroine and instigator of the festival of Hanukkah.

Her story is not taught in schools, certainly not in kindergartens. Her name was Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, sister of the Maccabees.

According to the midrash, the Jews, then living under Greek Seleucid rule, had remained silent for three years; three years in which every woman who married would first be raped by the local Greek governor before she could enter her husband’s house. This is how the midrash describes it: “When the Greeks saw that Israel was not affected by their decrees, they stood and decreed upon them a bitter and ugly decree, that a bride would not go in [to her husband] on her wedding night, but rather to the local commander” [all quotes from Midrash Ma’aseh Ḥanukkah “alef,” A Tale of the People’s Resistance to the Seleucid Greek Occupation].

It is awful to imagine how many women underwent this violation and humiliation. The midrash tells us that the men of the Hasmonean family did nothing. And the women of Israel fell victim again and again to the abuse.

Matityahu the Hasmonean in battle, a relief likely sculpted by Jacob Roukhomovsky, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Then came the wedding day of Matityahu the Hasmonean’s own daughter Hannah. This time, Hannah decided to put an end to the ongoing atrocity. In the middle of the wedding banquet, while all the distinguished and important guests were eating and enjoying themselves, she stood up and ripped off her wedding dress, leaving herself naked in front of her family and friends.

“And when everyone was sitting down to eat, Ḥannah, the daughter of Matityahu, stood up from her palanquin and clapped her hands one on the other and tore off her royal garment and stood before all of Israel, revealed before her father and her mother and her groom!”

At first, her brothers reacted with anger and shock. They wanted to kill her for having disgraced them and for shaming the family and herself.

But she, in turn, scolded them for turning a blind eye, all the while knowing what awaited her that night at the governor’s palace. Not one of them had raised a finger, not one had stood up to protect her dignity. She reprimanded her brothers for being angry at her nakedness in front of them, even as they remained calm at the thought of her having to go later that night to the governor who would sexually assault her.

An expedition to the graves of the Maccabees. Courtesy of Archive Network Israel, in collaboration with the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“She said ‘Listen, my brothers and uncles! So what—I stand naked before you righteous men with no sexual transgression and you get all incensed?! And you do not become incensed about sending me into the hands of an uncircumcised man who will abuse me?!’”

She forced them to face up to the bitter truth. According to the midrash, this was the moment her Maccabee brothers first raised the flag of rebellion.

The first question that comes to mind when someone hears this story is – did this really happen?  After all, this isn’t a story that is told as part of the typical Hanukkah celebration. We know the story of the miracle of the jar of oil, we know all about the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the heroism of Judah the Maccabee. But the story of the woman who incited the rebellion, or the story of the sexual exploitation that was behind the uprising isn’t common knowledge.

Among the Ashkenazi communities of Europe, the story of Hannah, whose name may derive from the name of the Hanukkah holiday itself, appears in some sources, but she is occasionally referred to anonymously as bat Hashmonaim – a Hasmonean daughter. In the communities of North Africa, on the other hand, they tell the story of Judith who beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes, and whose heroism is recorded in a slightly different way in the apocryphal “Book of Judith.” Some researchers suggest that these two women—“bat Hashmonaim and Judith—are one and the same.

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Bezalel Archive

I think the more interesting question we need to ask ourselves is why hasn’t this story been told more often? I believe that the story of Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, has remained hidden or suppressed because of its complexity. Telling this story, a tale of silenced sexual violence, can be a disturbing experience. It is much easier to tell the story of a military triumph of good over evil as we light our menorahs and eat our jelly donuts.

But Hannah’s story is an important one and its telling is long overdue. It is a story that can bring about a real change, even today.

Rashi’s commentary on the lighting of the Hanukkah candles in the tractate Shabbat offers additional evidence for the significance of Hannah’s role in the Hanukkah narrative. The question is asked whether women are obligated to fulfil the commandment of lighting Hanukkah candles. The answer is affirmative, women are obligated and the Talmud’s explanation for this special obligation is that women were partners in the Hanukkah miracle and are therefore also obligated in lighting the candles that commemorate the miracle.

Rashi writes of the Hanukkah miracle and Hannah’s role in it: “Since the Greeks decreed upon all the virgins getting married to have intercourse with the high official first. And the miracle happened through a woman.” Rashi, the great commentator of the Bible and Talmud, offers here a concise interpretation of the female heroism behind the Hanukkah story and its female protagonist. He makes the claim that a woman wrought this miracle, and for that very reason, to this day, women are expected to light Hanukkah candles.

Invitation to a “Maccabee Festival” in Germany, Hanukkah eve, 1903. The Postcard Collection, the National Library of Israel

Of course, this is not proof that the story happened necessarily, but it is evidence that it is not new either. Rather, it is an ancient story reflecting a familiar reality from various times in Jewish history passed down in Jewish tradition.

The story of Hannah, daughter of Matityahu, is a harsh one and it remains hidden and untold. But in my view, it is the most important story there is.

Hannah expresses the voice of silenced women throughout the generations, right up to this very today. She shows us how important it is for us to stand up for each other. She reminds us to support and help those women whose voices have been taken from them through violence. She teaches us that sometimes the baring of the naked truth, no matter how painful, is the only way to create change.

Hanukkah has a female hero. A hero whose strong voice resonates in today’s painful Israeli reality. A hero who implores us to look around and see who is in need of help. If we dare to place her story in the center of our discourse, if we dare to tell of her brave act, we can strengthen female voices that choose not to remain silent and give voice to the wronged women who have been silenced throughout history.

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.