Hebrew for Tarot Readers, the Mother Letters

A tutorial series by guest poster, Mick Frankel

Part One: the Mother Letters

There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet:

Alphabet Horizontal

“Ch” is pronounced like a full-on Scots version of “Loch”. Along with “tz” it’s the characteristic sound of Hebrew as in the word, “chutzpah”.

Letters that take a dot in the middle to change their sound count as one letter.
For example, בּ and ב count as the same letter.

Similarly, letters that have a final form count as one letter.
For example, צ and ץ count as the same letter.
Similarly, שׁ and שׂ count as one letter.

The vowels aren’t considered as letters.

The Sefer Yetziroh

Sefer Yetziroh (“Book of Foundation”) is an important book in mystical Jewish learning. Traditionally, knowledge of the Sefer Yetziroh would only have been available to Rabbis and their students.

The Hebrew letters are discussed and classified in Sefer Yetziroh in a way that’s crucial to the way people have linked the 22 letters to the 22 Tarot Trumps.

But…

… the fact that there are different versions of Sefer Yetziroh, amongst other things, has led to people coming up with different Tarot/Hebrew letter correspondences.

There are plenty of academic websites that discuss the possible history of Sefer Yetziroh and the various different versions. The Kheper website is a good place to start.

Let’s look at the possible correspondences between the Hebrew letters and the Tarot Trumps.

There are lots of ways to find a system of correspondence, let’s start with the common ground.

The Mother Letters

Sefer Yetziroh says that three of the Hebrew letters are “Mother Letters” or “Primary Letters”.

These are:

Mother

Sefer Yetziroh says that these three Mother letters correspond to the three elements Air, Water and Fire.
א corresponds to air. The letter points upwards.
מ corresponds to water. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh says that the letter “…can be visualised as a fountain…”
שׁ corresponds to fire. It looks like flames.

Notice that Jewish mysticism doesn’t include the element of Earth in amongst the Mother letters. My understanding is that this is because we live on Earth and so we inhabit the Earth element.

How might all this connect to the Tarot Trumps?

Book-T is a useful source document for the ideas of the Order of the Golden Dawn.

It says that The Foolish Man corresponds to the element of Air and therefore to א.

Seems like we’re off to a good start. But here’s another subtlety to be aware of…

… each Hebrew letter has a numerical value but they don’t go from 1 to 22, it’s more complicated than that.

Here’s a table of the Hebrew letters and their numerical values:

Alphabet Numbers

So if א has the numerical value of 1, perhaps it would make equal sense to link א to I The Magician?

This was the correspondence that Eliphas Lévi used in the 19th Century.

So people even say that the figure of the Magician looks a bit like the shape of א. What do you think?

This idea is taken even further by Mark Filipas who suggests that the Tarot Trumps are a sort of “teach yourself Hebrew” cards.

Mark Filipas says that the word in Hebrew for each object in the pictures on the Tarot de Marseille cards starts with the letter that the card corresponds to.

If you’re interested in exploring this idea further, see Mark’s essays.

So, the first of the Mother letters א has been linked to I The Magician by Lévi and also been linked to The Fool by the Golden Dawn.

HebrewFoolMagi

Let’s look at מ which is the next Mother letter

The name of the letter מ is written:

מֵם

So it should sound a bit more like “maym” but everyone says “mem”. Notice that the word contains the two forms of the letter: the normal and the final form.

The word for water in Hebrew is:

מַיִם

So inserting a י changes Mem to water.
מ has the numerical value of 40. Test your Hebrew skills on this verse from the story of Noah, Genesis VIII verse 12:

וַיְהִי הַגֶשֶׁם עַל הָאָרֶץ

It’s quite poetic in the Hebrew and is translated as:

“And the rain was upon the Earth forty days and forty nights.”

Can’t get much more watery than that association with the number 40.

XII The Hanged Man was traditionally linked to the element of Water.

Book-T says that XII The Hanged Man corresponds to the element of Water and therefore to מ.

But since מ is the 13th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, perhaps it might also make sense to link מ to XIII Death?

This was the correspondence that Eliphas Lévi used in the 19th Century.

Mark Filipas suggests that the shape of מ looks like the scythe carrying figure on the Tarot de Marseille Trump XIII.

Sure enough, two words for death in Hebrew both begin with מ

מָוֶת

מִיתָה

So, the second of the Mother letters מ has been linked to XIII by Lévi and also been linked to XII The Hanged Man by the Golden Dawn.

HebrewHangedDeath

Next, let’s look at שׁ which is the third Mother letter

Here’s a table of what we’ve gone through so far:

It looks like a pattern is emerging where the Golden Dawn correspondences are one card behind the Lévi correspondences in the sequence of Tarot Trumps.

שׁ the third of the three Mother letters doesn’t follow this pattern.

שׁ corresponds to Fire. It looks like flames.

XX Judgement was traditionally linked to the element of Fire.

Book-T says that XX Judgement corresponds to the element of Fire and therefore to שׁ.

But since שׁ is the 21st letter of the Hebrew alphabet, perhaps it might also make sense to link שׁ to XXI The World? This is the correspondence that Mark Filipas uses.

However, this wasn’t the correspondence that Eliphas Lévi used in the 19th Century.

Lévi thought that The Fool corresponded to the spirit of Fire and so he linked שׁ to The Fool.

Because שׁ is the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Lévi made The Fool into Tarot Trump XXI thereby making The World Trump XXII.

Confusing.

HebrewJudgWorld

The name of the letter שׁ is:

שִׁין

Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh says, “The spectrum of meanings associated with the name of the shin is the richest and most splendorous of all of the letters of the alef-beit.”

Splendorous indeed. These meanings include: a tooth, to teach diligently, sleep and serene peace.

But the overwhelming connection to שׁ is the concept of fire. שׁ definitely looks like a flame.

The Hebrew word for water is:

מַיִם

Add a שׁ and the word becomes:

שָׁמַיִם

which means Heaven.

So the Fire of שׁ added to water gives Heaven.

Genesis I verse 8 describes the creation of the firmament called Heaven.

Try reading this phrase which comes at the end of the verse:

וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בקֶר יוֹם שֵׁנִי

The phrase has a pleasing rhythm in Hebrew. My English translation reads:

“And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

The Hebrew word for second:

שֵׁנִי

is an anagram of the name of the letter:

שִׁין

The Final Nun still counts as Nun when it comes to re-arranging the letters.

In the order that they come in the Hebrew alphabet, the elements are Air, Water and Fire for א מ and שׁ.

Perhaps it would make sense to place them in a kind of descending hierarchy as Fire, Air and Water? Fire rising above Air which in turn rises above Water.

This gives the sequence:

Mother Fire Air Water

The silent א mediates between the sound of שׁ made with the teeth and the sound of מ made with the lips.

Air mediates between the heat of Fire and the coldness of Water

Join me in the next post, where we’ll have a look at the seven Double letters.

Mick Frankel

Tutorial Index

Hebrew for Tarot Readers is a free course run by Mick. If you would like to join, you can apply directly to Mick, or via the Yahoo Group page for the course. The benefits of joining are of course the interaction with Mick, other members and course materials, including sound files to help you with pronunciation of the Hebrew Letters.

Be sure to visit Mick’s excellent website for Tarot, I-Ching, Astrology and Dream Interpretation services and articles.

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Author: Catherine

I use tarot to help me navigate life and understand myself better. As well as tarot, I enjoy using aromatherapy & herbalism to improve my health & well being. My spiritual seeking lay with Gaia, the environment & what my senses engage around me.

5 thoughts

  1. Hi Mick:
    I loved your comment about the “ch” sound being similar to the “ch” sound in “Loch”– that’s the sound, all right!
    I’m not well-versed in this area of tarot at all, so am finding this really interesting: lots of new information for me to ponder. I’m looking forward to the next post!
    Valerie

    Like

  2. Thanks Valerie.

    I’m delighted that you like the first article on Tarot and the Hebrew letters.

    There are more articles to come leading to a conclusion that I hope you’ll like.

    Best wishes,

    Mick

    Like

  3. Shalom Mick,

    Very interesting! I honestly knew very little about Sefer Yetzirah, and even less about Tarot. However, I found the representation of the Hebrew alphabet very interesting.

    Unfortunately, the Niqqud weren’t that clear here on my screen, I guess you should write using the font “david” next time, it’s much clearer. I had the same issue before I shifted to a few different fonts.

    I don’t know if this would be interesting to you or any of your readers, but I have made a page where the Hebrew alphabet are pronounced http://www.israelhebrew.com/hebrew-alphabet-chart-song/

    You have a wonderful day there.

    Lehitraot,

    Adam

    Like

    1. Shalom Adam,

      Thank you very much.

      I’m working on the third article in this series on the Aleph Beis. This will look at the 12 simple letters which correspond to the signs of the Zodiac.

      Best wishes,

      Mick

      Like

    2. Shalom Adam,

      I have coded the Hebrew letters to read as a serif font so they read more classically. The global font on my blog is sans serif, which was the issue with clarity of reading the letters – thanks for highlighting the issue.

      I will certainly take a look at your website as I’ve just started to learn Hebrew so the pronunciations will be very helpful.

      Many thanks,

      Catherine

      Like

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