If you don’t know you’re on the Fool’s Journey, you’re on a fool’s errand.
Recently I did a tarot reading for a Lubavitcher Hasid. He wasn’t my first client from that community. Like many people who come to me for a tarot reading, he’d already sought an answer to his situation from the many resources he had available in his life—yet he found their answers lacking. And so he came to me because he’d heard that my approach to reading the cards is based on Kabbalistic principles.
You might be surprised to learn that the esoteric structure of the tarot is based on the Kabbalistic diagram of the Tree of Life. How these two systems came together is the subject of much research and debate, but over time the organization of this seventy-eight-card deck became inextricably linked to the Sephirot,1 the paths between them, and even some of the less widely known Kabbalistic concepts, like the Partzufim.2
At its simplest, the tarot deck is organized in two main groupings:
The Major Arcana is comprised of twenty-two cards, each representing a particular archetype or energy, and each paired with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. Further, each card represents one of the twenty-two pathways between the ten Sephirot on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
The Minor Arcana is a set of fifty-six cards that resembles a modern deck of playing cards, divided into four suits. Each suit consists of ten cards numbered one through ten—paired with the ten Sephirot—along with four “court” cards mapped onto four of the Partzufim.
I think of interpreting tarot cards as a kind of midrash. Just as a midrashic reading of the Torah finds unspoken narratives and meanings in the spaces between breaks and contradictions, tarot reading develops narratives from the spaces between the cards in a spread. Traditional midrashic Aggadah starts from Torah text; creating midrash is thus a way of better understanding the word of G!d. And, of course, “seeking to understand the word of G!d” is also a definition of the word divination.
For me, reading cards is a practice of actively reflecting on how the Divine shows up in our individual lives and collective consciousness. Part of my tarot work thus involves connecting the images on the cards to words of Torah, and to the teachings and stories of sages from our tradition (though I don’t limit myself only to wisdom from Judaism).
As it happened, the first card that appeared in the querent-Hasid’s reading was The Fool.
Perhaps you’d recognize an image of The Fool card from what is arguably the most popular tarot deck in the world: the Waite-Smith deck, created by Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, and published in 1909. The Waite-Smith Fool card shows a fair-haired young man standing on the edge of a precipice, the sun at his back. He is dressed in a manner, with colorful tunic and hose, that suggests Renaissance Europe. He seems unconcerned, perhaps even unaware, that if he takes another step he will plunge from a great height. A white dog by his side seems to be trying to get his attention, perhaps to warn him of the danger. But the young man keeps his gaze fixed upwards. A sack hangs from the walking stick over his shoulder, suggesting that he is on a journey. Perhaps he is a vagabond, despite his clothing that would be more at home in a royal court.
When The Fool appears in a reading, the most frequent interpretation is that the querent must make a leap of faith—to stop hesitating and finally take the action they’ve been considering.
To introduce the meaning of this card to my client, I told him a folktale that I’d first read in Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim:
In the years before the Baal Shem Tov revealed himself as a spiritual master, people thought he was a fool. He spent much of his time alone in the mountains seemingly lost—though he was actually in deep contemplation. One day, some robbers saw him walking along a narrow mountain path that was bordered by the cliff face on one side, and by a precipitous drop into a deep ravine on the other. “He will probably fall and break his neck,” said one of the thieves, and they decided to follow with the intention of robbing him.
As the Baal Shem Tov lifted his foot to step off the edge of the cliff, at just that moment, another mountain suddenly moved across the ravine to meet him, so that he continued walking without even noticing, as if nothing had happened. The robbers who witnessed this miracle immediately understood he was a holy man.3
In a piously irreverent statement on stories like these, attributed to Rebbe Shlomo Rabinowicz of Rodomsk, we come to another connection between fools and faith: “Whoever believes all the miracle stories about the Baal Shem Tov . . . is a fool, but whoever denies that he could have done them is a heretic.”
Of course, Arthur Edward Waite, who specified the designs for the Major Arcana cards in this deck, wouldn’t necessarily have heard of the Baal Shem Tov. But Waite’s explanations of The Fool card could easily describe the episode with the robbers and the cliff: “The edge which opens on the depth has no terror, it is as if angels were waiting to uphold him . . .” Waite further describes the figure of the Fool as pure “spirit in search of experience . . . a prince of the other world on [their] travels through this one . . .”4
Both the tale of the Baal Shem Tov and Waite’s description suggest an encounter with an uncanny character: the Holy Fool. The figures who embody this archetype—appearing in folktales, literature, and art the world over—don’t seem too smart at first; in fact, they often seem crazy. Holy fools live on the edge of society. Sometimes they’re homeless, vagrants.5 But their very “foolishness” and outsider status turn out to be the source of their wisdom. From the outskirts, they can see what others can’t and try what others won’t.
For this reason, the Holy Fool often appears in legend (and in life) as a court jester. Such a fool can speak truth to power without risk or danger if their speech is couched in humor. Such a presence within the halls of power might act as a kind of release valve—a radically playful way to defuse the dangers of hubris, keeping leaders from taking themselves too seriously.
Such fools appear in almost every culture and wisdom tradition, including Judaism. In Sephardi Jewish folktales, for instance, there are stories of a holy fool named Joha (a cultural variant of the Islamic stories of Nasruddin). And in the Ashkenazi Jewish folktale tradition, we find Chelm, an entire village of fools whose citizens have provided humorous wisdom for generations. Such figures appear in real life, too; Buber wrote of the Baal Shem Tov’s fellow tzaddikim (Hasidic spiritual masters) as holy fools, men who, “because of [their] undamaged direct relationship with G-d, [have] quitted the rules and regulations of the social order . . . . But since men are so made that they cannot endure an attitude such as this, which blocks their evasion of the eternal, they are content to jeer at the ‘fool.’”6
The Fool of the modern tarot deck carries all these meanings and associations, and more. This figure represents not just the characteristics of a jester or madman (which include unlikely and unexpected wisdom), but also the process of preconscious pure spirit entering the world of physical manifestation.
The Fool’s willingness to step off the precipice shows that he lives in a universe wholly unlike our own, where angels are waiting to uphold him. The Fool’s wisdom is this: whatever happens in the world of physical manifestation, he knows he will ultimately transcend it.
But stepping off a precipice certainly does look crazy, and it’s not just old-world spiritual masters like the Baal Shem Tov who do it. Consider the spiritual lessons of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote: the Road Runner zips off a cliff without a moment’s hesitation and continues on his way, while Coyote always makes the fatal mistake of looking down, thereby initiating his crashing descent.
We see this same story in The Matrix. When Neo tried to jump from one building to another for the first time, he made it halfway across before the fear hit him, and so he fell. It is only once he truly understood that the appearance of reality is an illusion, and that everything is really just computer code, made of zeros and ones, that he was able to make it safely to the other side.
Interestingly, The Fool card is also a zero and one. Because the twenty-two Major Arcana cards are numbered, and also have a corresponding Hebrew letter, The Fool is numbered zero and linked to the letter א, which besides being a letter, also stands for the number one.7 The Fool thus contains the code of all life, nothing and everything, within. The number one suggests a beginning, or first step. And the zero suggests that the Fool stands outside all social hierarchies, with no fixed position; this frees him of any sense of static identity and points us to the realization that ego is ultimately an illusion.
This brings us to a concept that is unique to tarot: the Fool’s Journey. This phrase first appeared in Eden Gray’s A Complete Guide to the Tarot in 1970. Starting from the understanding that the Fool represents the soul in the moment just before incarnation, the Fool’s Journey is a metaphor for our inner exploration as we learn, over the course of our lives, the lessons encoded in the other twenty-one cards of the Major Arcana. Sallie Nicholls, who has lectured on the subject of the Fool’s Journey at the Jung Institute, wrote that the sequence of the Major Arcana cards represents a universal developmental journey towards individuation.
If you’re reminded of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “hero’s journey,” you’re not alone. Many people have tried to place the journey of the Fool and the Hero together, and it’s true that they share some milestones. However, one of the limits of Campbell’s journey is that it only represents heroic male figures in myth. The Fool represents the human soul, and so this same “soul” moves through the identities of the other cards, wearing them like garments to be discarded as soon as each new archetype’s lesson has been learned. In this way, the Fool, like the human soul, is beyond gender, and beyond fixed identities in general.8 The Hero is but one stop on the Fool’s Journey, which continues beyond it.
So, when The Fool card appears in a reading, it asks you to consider where you are on your journey—and to ask, what kind of Fool am I?
If I make a fool of myself, who cares? I’m not frightened by anyone’s perception of me.
When The Fool card shows up, it’s serious business. But it’s also a reminder not to take anything too seriously. If you’re faced with a new experience or choice, the Fool’s message is that the universe is presenting you with the opportunity to try something new in a spirit of playfulness, from a place of joy and possibility, without preconceptions. The Fool whispers in your ear, “Don’t be afraid of failure or embarrassment—why care about appearing ridiculous to others? Let your soul, not your ego, lead the way.”
The Fool shows up when your life is at a turning point, when you’re faced with a new challenge and only your faith and intuition can guide you. Other people’s opinions don’t matter. If you take them to heart, when you step off that cliff, they’ll weigh you down and send you plummeting.
The Fool can help you recognize when you’ve internalized the opinions of others, denying yourself the freedom you were born with. In my practice, when The Fool card appears I often ask my client, “What judgment are you afraid of that’s keeping you from moving forward?” Because when you let go of these judgments, you’re free to take the next step, and to fly.
And if you fall, remember the wisdom of BTS: “We don’t need to worry, because when we fall, we know how to land.”
The Art of Reading Tarot: A Brief Introduction
People often want to know about the tarot cards’ creators, hoping that some insight into their intentions will help crack the code. However, to find meaning in the tarot images, you don’t have to know anything about what the cards’ creators intended. Approach each card like a painting in a gallery, and you might be surprised by how well you already understand its meaning or significance.
Just as with Torah interpretation, it’s best to start with the peshat level, to describe exactly what’s happening in the image without analysis: just the facts, ma’am. From this stable ground, you can consider more abstract principles or esoteric ideas associated with the cards. (I have often referred to the deck as a warehouse of Western symbolism!) But before you get there, there’s one more step: you must treat the cards as a mirror, paying primary attention to how you feel and think about what you see.
Using projection to reveal our unconscious thoughts, tarot can work like a number of therapeutic tools. The Rorschach test is the obvious reference here—but the lesser-known Thematic Apperception Test, in which people are asked to interpret images of what the test’s creators call “ambiguous situations,” is an even more apt analogy. By finding a story in an image with no single “right” narrative, subjects reveal something about their own assumptions, expectations, and experiences.
This is not so different from how many tarot readers work with the cards. While there are traditional interpretations of the cards to draw on, the meaning chosen by the querent is often the most important. The detail they pick up on in a card is often the one that speaks most directly to their situation. In this psychospiritual style of reading, the meaning is accessed through collaboration: the “reader” is more like a guide, helping the querent discover their own meanings. However, just as when studying medieval and Renaissance art, becoming familiar with some common subjects and symbols can help unlock hidden meanings within the cards. Therefore, in my own tarot readings, I pair the intuitive “reader-centered” approach, described above, with Kabbalistic principles.
For example, in a reading I did recently, the Five of Pentacles, which in the Waite-Smith deck presents a rather harsh image, came up. When you understand that all Minor Arcana cards numbered five correspond to the Sephirah of Gevurah on the Tree of Life, you have a base from which to interpret the image.
Gevurah suggests a constellation of meanings that include severity, harsh judgment, and constriction, among others. The image on the Waite-Smith Five of Pentacles shows two people, a shoeless beggar and a leper, walking outside in a snowstorm. Behind them is the illuminated stained glass window of a church. An important detail is that we only see the window—there is no door for them to enter.
During this recent reading, the Five of Pentacles fell on the Tiferet position in the spread.9 Since Tiferet represents the heart space on the Tree of Life (among other things), I asked my client if there’s a community where they feel a heart connection, but where the core tenets sometimes make them feel unwelcome or alienated.
As it turned out, this was central to the issue they wanted to explore. And they connected the image of these two suffering people in the snow with one of their own recent experiences, of bonding with a supportive friend during a time when doors were closed to them.
This is not everyone’s style of reading. In fact, it’s not always my style of reading. During one session I might use this technique along with a host of others. But what is central to all of these approaches is the collaborative nature of the reading. For the querent to get the most value and information, it’s important that they cocreate the meaning and validate the interpretation, even if it’s one they’d rather not see.
- In Kabbalah, the Sephirot represent the ten qualities or emanations of the Divine, visually represented in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life.
- A system in which particular configurations of the Sephirot are arranged in anthropomorphic relationships to one another.
- A version of this story appears as “The Helpful Mountain” in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (New York: Schocken Books, 1991). Another version can be found as “The Angel’s Sword” in the collection edited by Howard Schwartz, Gabriel’s Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
- “The Fool” in A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, illus. Pamela Colman Smith (London: William Rider & Son, 1911).
- In the earliest decks, the Italian tarot decks of the fifteenth century, The Fool was known as Il Matto, the madman whose ravings revealed truth. The image on this card is of a homeless man, with his butt exposed through torn clothing. The Italian word matto is also related to mattaccino, a kind of court jester who spoke truth to power—and this word inspired the name of one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States, the Mattachine Society.
- Martin Buber, On Intersubjectivity and Cultural Creativity, ed. S. N. Eisenstadt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 149.
- Though the Papus deck associates the Fool with the שׁ (shin), it’s most often associated with the letter א (aleph).
- Understandably, some people have a difficult time with the representations of gender in the deck. I try to approach each card not as a representation of gender, but as a representation of an archetypal energy.
- A tarot spread is a predetermined arrangement of the cards, with each position assigned a meaning that affects the interpretation of the card that falls upon it. The spread I most often use for detailed, in-depth readings follows the diagram of the Tree of Life.
Mark Horn is the author of Tarot and the Gates of Light: A Kabbalistic Path to Liberation, which teaches how to count the Omer with tarot for deep self-examination. He may be the only person who’s taught at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Readers Studio International Tarot Conference. He is also the editor of (and contributor to) The Stonewall Seder, a liturgy for a ritual dinner celebrating LGBTQ+ history, observed on Pride weekend in June. The liturgy has been used by synagogues across the US, as well as in Europe and Australia. He offers classes, individual study, and tarot readings in NYC and via Zoom, and can be found online at www.gatesoflighttarot.com.