Torah in the Tarot: Hidden Secrets of the Crypto-Jews

Did Crypto-Jews use tarot cards as a secret tool for Jewish education?

GREAT BARRINGTON – On Friday, August 11 at 10:45 a.m., Knosh & Knowledge presents “Torah in the Tarot: Hidden Secrets of the Crypto-Jews,” a program in collaboration with the Boston-area Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts) as part of Federation's Celebration of Sephardic Culture.

This free program will take place at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Road in Great Barrington.

In this conversation moderated by Laura Mandel (director of the Boston JArts), Torah scholar Stav Appel will examine the Tarot anew through a Judaic lens of understanding. He will reveal its images as secret vessels for Hebrew letters, Judaic ritual objects, Jewish Holy Days, and legends of Torah.

The mesmerizing cards, masterpieces of cryptography crafted when the Jewish faith was targeted for destruction, contain a surprisingly comprehensive portrait of the rituals and lore of Judaism within the limited space of 22 small cardboard squares. Appel and Berkshire artist Jonathan Prince are collaborating on a way to present this story through augmented reality (AR) software.

Intrigued by enigmatic Biblical imagery in antique Tarot cards, Stav Appel started looking for answers. What he found reveals an untold story of ingenuity, perseverance, and faith in one of the darkest moments of Jewish history, when the practice of the faith was prohibited through much of Europe.

See the evidence for yourself and learn more about how this research is being transformed into an augmented reality (AR) app called “Secrets of the Tarot.” Available now in the app store, the app takes you on a journey to uncover the Torah in the Tarot that has been hiding in plain sight for nearly 400 years.

The Torah in the Tarot is available at

About Our Presenter

Stav Appel is a data scientist and a lifelong student of the Torah who resides in upstate New York. He advises businesses on how to use data visualization technology to identify strategic insights hidden within large data sets. He has held leadership positions at Pfizer, RRD, and Accenture. He has an MBA from the Yale School of Management and a BA in Philosophy from Binghamton University.

About The Torah in the Tarot

The Torah in the Tarot is a reproduction of the 22 major arcana (or trump cards) of The Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille, created in France circa 1650, with Stav Appel’s commentary in a booklet and on the back of each card. For nearly 400 years the Judaic content of the Tarot de Marseille has been unnoticed, misunderstood, or ignored. The card shown on this page, “The Street Entertainer,” for example, represents the first patriarch of Judaism, Abraham – notice how the figure’s hands are held in a way that resembles the letter ‘Aleph.' On the table are the tools of circumcision, which Abraham underwent at the age of 99. In his left hand, he holds a…oy. Well, come to the program and ask questions. We caught up with Stav Appel in June for a little more insight on how tarot cards became so Jewish and why the seemingly obvious connection has been overlooked. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

So in doing my research, I looked over the voluminous Wikipedia entries for both ‘Tarot’ and ‘Tarot de Marseille.’ Then I did a search for the word ‘Jew’ on both pages – and nothing came up. How do you explain that absence given that, as you show, there is such obvious Jewish iconography?

What's really funny about that absence is that a lot of Jewish people played a central role in the creation of contemporary tarot culture. [Science fiction and comic book writer] Rachel Pollack, was a very famous writer [who popularized and reimagined tarot in a book considered a classic of its type, 78 Degrees Of Wisdom]. Stuart Kaplan from US Games was central to the popularization of tarot in the United States around the world. But officially, there's no connection between tarot and Judaism, which is really weird, because if you read a lot of the esoteric or occult tarot books, you'll find them filled with Judaic imagery, Hebrew letters, and kabbalah. But if you go to the occult tarot world, they have this kind of school of theology that I call, half-jokingly, ‘Ocult Kabbalah.’ It's a form of kabbalah that has been purged of Judaism and Jews.

The history of the tarot is like a big game of broken telephone played over generations by different kinds of people. Artists were copying this deck over and over again, and a lot of the Judaica in subsequent copies began to deteriorate. But if you go to the original versions, it's actually quite apparent – yet somehow Judaism is never mentioned in the conversation. There's actually a very specific reason for that. In 1800s, there was a French author, Alphonse Louis Constant, a self-professed magician who wrote a book called The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic under the pen name of Éliphas Lévi. He describes this new mystical theology called ‘kabbalah,’ which had nothing to do with Judaism. At this time in France, Jews and Judaism were seen as alien and bizarre and threatening. Lévi put on the face of the Jewish sorcerer, playing on the stereotypes of the magical Jew for theatrical effect while appropriating Hebrew language and the nomenclature of kabbalah. In esoteric circles, when people began to think of Hebrew or these Judaic ritual objects, they began to associate it more with Occult Kabbalah than with Judaism. Those people laid claim to the Tarot de Marseille as their foundational artifact – and that one event of intellectual trickery masked the Jewish theme in these cards. Later, [the serious kabbalah scholar] Gershom Scholem called Éliphas Lévi out as a charlatan.

I'm trying to show that when you wash away this veneer of Occult Kabbalah, underneath it, there's not only genuine Judaic kabbalah, but also Judaism. For centuries, tarot historians have debated the meaning of the word ‘tarot’? For me, it's obvious. ‘Tarot’ is a wordplay on ‘Torah.’ And I believe there was kind of a community of people who always have known that there is a Jewish thread hidden deep inside this story.

Before they had an association with the occult, tarot cards were used as playing cards for different kinds of games. How did they become Jewish?

There still there's a lot of mystery around the early history of tarot in Europe. Originally, they were called ‘trionfi’ cards, which means ‘parade’ [and from which the word ‘trump’ is derived]. So the idea was that you could have a miniature parade of characters in your pocket. And yes, originally they were used for game playing and some were created at beautiful objects of art. But I don't see anything Judaic about those early cards.

At some point in the 1500s, there were two big changes. One is they started being called ‘tarrochi’ cards, and then they started being called Tarot de Marseille. Nobody really knows why. The second thing is that the number of picture cards became standardized to 22. That standardization of the number 22 and the name ‘tarrochi’ arose in unison in northern Italy and in southern France, which happened to have been locations to which many Jews fled during the Spanish Inquisition. And 22 is very important, because that happens to be the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

Tarot historians have always claimed that's just a wild coincidence. But, let's think for a second - who in the 1500 had the motivation to actually hide Hebrew letters in a package of playing cards? Quite frankly, it was Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition [who had to hide their identity]. One of the crazy things to me is that the tarot world suffers this bout of Judaic blindness. They can see Hebrew, they can see kabbalah. They can even see Judaic ritual objects. But for some reason, this entire field that's been going on for centuries it's incapable of seeing Jews and Judaism.

[The 1500s were] a key moment in the evolution of the medium where so much of the design of the cards was inspired. I have to believe it wasn't just one artist. The amount of Judaica is so dense, so filled with Judaica in such a thoughtful, clever manner, that I can only conclude that it was a group of artists who collaborated and worked on these cards for years, if not decades.

The Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille is the only deck I know of that I'm sure was intentionally Jewish. The artists knew what they were doing and it's a total masterpiece. And it's a completely unrecognized work of genius. [The only existing copy is] sitting in the French National Library and it’s categorized as a deck of playing cards. It's an absolute crime that this deck has not been recognized for what it is. The artists who created this deck were giants. I'm in total awe of the ingenuity and the creativity and the mastery of cryptography that went into it. I also think this one deck of cards is a key to opening up a whole other world of not just tarot history, but Jewish history that's been completely lost.