Stav Appel is an astute New York data scientist with a strong Jewish education. His knowledge of Judaism and Hebrew has proven useful in ways that he never could have imagined. Five years ago, Appel stumbled upon hidden Jewish symbols in the Jean Noblet de Marseille deck of cards, the world-renowned ancestor of modern tarot cards, such as the widely popular Rider-Waite deck.
“I do not have a background in the tarot. I’m not a New Age person. I’m not into gemstones. I have an MBA from the Yale School of Management. In many ways, I’m a very boring person. I’m bilingual – Hebrew and English – and I’m a lifelong student of Torah,” Appel explained in a Zoom interview from his home in Westchester County just north of New York City.
In 2017, Appel’s wife bought a deck of tarot cards from a bargain bin at a used bookstore. She brought the tarot cards home, thinking her husband could use them as an imagination game with their young children. “They loved it,” he said, and “when I was looking at the cards, it was interesting to me that there were Biblical references in them. I hadn’t known that there were connections between the Bible and tarot.”
From this one observation, Appel was inspired to delve deeper into the world of tarot art history, where he recognized a distinctly Judaic presence in the cards that has been entirely unrecognized by tarot historians. Appel is convinced that the artists of the Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille were crypto-Jews who created a tool to preserve Jewish traditions in a manner that would elude detection by the Vatican’s Holy Office of the Inquisition.
Appel explained: “I am not talking about Kabbalah in the cards, a theory espoused by many. Rather, they contain veiled depictions of Hebrew letters, Torah stories, Judaic ritual objects and Jewish Holy Days. The cards are a visual summary of Judaism itself, what I call ‘The Torah in the Tarot.’ According to Appel, the Jean Noblet deck contains visual references to Judaic traditions such as circumcision, Shabbat, the High Holidays, Purim, Passover, the ritual objects of the Temple and so forth.
“What I’ve published so far is a rough draft to get the conversation started,” Appel said, referring to his publication The Torah in the Tarot, a reproduction of the Jean Noblet’s major arcana, a booklet that guides the reader through the cards’ 400-year-old Judaic secrets. With over 23,000 followers on Appel’s Torah Tarot Instagram account, his Torah-led interpretation of the cards is gaining traction. He devotes much of his time outside of his day job to what he calls “The Torah in the Tarot” project, to educate the Jewish community about the secret Judaic content of the Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille. He speaks at universities, synagogues, and community centers (such as Kol Ami and the T'Shuva Center) about the history of crypto-Jews and the esoteric meaning of the symbols and imagery that may have helped crypto-Jews keep the Torah alive during the centuries of the Inquisition. In addition, he is working with the Jewish Arts Collaborative of Boston and artist Jonathan Prince an "Augmented Reality" museum exhibit on the Jean Noblet Tarot.
As a data scientist, his analytical approach is rooted in his life’s work of connecting dots, making sense of data by finding meaningful patterns that are not readily apparent to the casual observer. Since we’re in the midst of Hanukkah, I asked Appel if he could flag a card or two with specific Hanukkah symbolism. “It’s a bit of a challenge, in that there is not a neat summary of Hanukkah in one card, unlike Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Tisha Be’av, Simhat Torah and Sukkot, all of which have their own dedicated cards.
“The holiday of Hanukkah can be found in three cards. In the Emperor card, the fourth card, the figure’s head is in the shape of the letter dalet, and it is also an upside down dreidel.” Appel points to the Emperor card as a veiled depiction of King Cyrus, the biblical figure who helped rebuild and rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem.
“In the 17th card, which is mostly a depiction of Yom Kippur, there is also a reference to Hanukkah. The main figure in this is Bat Sheva performing tashlich in preparation for Yom Kippur. In the sky are seven Jewish stars surrounding an eighth star for the Temple menorah and the eight nights of Hanukkah. The stars are between two trees, which is a reference to the prophet Zechariah’s vision of the newly rededicated Temple menorah burning brightly between two olive trees. It is an old tradition of the Kabbalah that the final night of Hanukkah grants one final opportunity for annual atonement,” he says.HE GOES on to the 18th card, showing a body of the water in the shape of the Hebrew letter, mem sofit. There are also three menorahs hidden in the card – one Hanukkah menorah with nine branches, and two other Temple menorahs with seven branches.
“There are lots of tarot history books that don’t mention Jews at all. It’s hard to tell experts that there’s a big blind spot in their understanding of the Tarot de Marseille’s 22 illustrated cards. In the original Tarot de Marseille, each of the 22 cards was intended to be a vessel for a Hebrew letter. Also, let’s acknowledge that the Jewish community doesn’t entirely like this theory either.”Stav Appel
“There are lots of tarot history books that don’t mention Jews at all,” Appel continued. “It’s hard to tell experts that there’s a big blind spot in their understanding of the Tarot de Marseille’s 22 illustrated cards. In the original Tarot de Marseille, each of the 22 cards was intended to be a vessel for a Hebrew letter. Also, let’s acknowledge that the Jewish community doesn’t entirely like this theory either,” he added. One of reasons Jewish people don’t want to study tarot, Appel believes, is that it’s associated with fortune telling, con artists, magic and superstition.
“If I reach out to the traditional Jewish Orthodox world, to Jewish academics or scholars, they immediately say ‘No, no, no.’ They see tarot as a form of idol worship. It’s seen as distinctly not Jewish, so it’s very hard to open up the eyes of Jewish scholars to the Jewish content of these cards. Or to the theory that the cards were a means for keeping Jewish faith alive during an especially dark time in Jewish history.”
Fortune-telling aside, the Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille has another strike against it: overt sexuality. The cards would indeed make many a Jew blush. The illustrations make a mockery of tzniut, the Torah mitzva to fully cover oneself and dress with modesty.
“I don’t know for sure, but I wrestle with two possible explanations,” Appel says. “The simple explanation is that the sexually explicit imagery is part of its disguise. To a casual viewer, the profanity of the images makes them obviously pagan, so who could possibly suspect they are a secret vessel for Judaism?
“An alternative explanation arises when we place the cards within their historical context. The 17th century was the peak era of Judaism’s communal enchantment with Kabbalah.
“THE KABBALISTS will interpret them as a radical work of spiritual art; a public display of Judaism’s hidden esoterica,” he said.
“It may not be a coincidence that the Jean Noblet Tarot was created during the lifetime of Sabbatai Zvi, the wildly popular false messiah who ultimately converted to Islam. Zvi routinely violated the laws of Judaism, quite theatrically and at times sexually, to herald the arrival of his messianic era. It’s interesting to note that Sabbatai Zvi’s wife was French, reportedly a fortune teller, and there were unflattering murmurings regarding her sexual history.
“Personally, I believe the creative genius of the Jean Noblet Tarot is that it is both. It’s a simple summary of Judaism and also a Kabbalistic tool,” Appel said.
“But if you go back in time, the original tarot cards, which predate fortune-telling, were used for playing games. The original tarot cards in the 1500s came from Italy and were called Trionfi cards, a play on the word “triumph” or “parade.” If you look at them, you won’t find any Jewish content. The Jean Noblet Tarot, made in 1650, repurposed the older Italian cards for a very different purpose. The older cards were used as a disguise.
“Once you place the Noblet in its historical context and examine what was happening to the Jews in 1650, it opens up a very different story. In 1650, the Inquisition was still going on. The Vatican was still hunting down people secretly practicing Judaism. Judaism was largely illegal in most of Europe. We can only speculate why someone hid Judaism in a deck of playing cards, but my best-educated guess is that they were intended to be a secret tool for Jewish education.”
Jean Noblet: Was he Jewish too?
The name Jean Noblet doesn’t exactly sound Jewish. Appel agrees. Then again, in his research, Appel found that it was common for crypto-Jews to have a Catholic name in daily life and a Hebrew name for use within the family.
“We don’t know if Jean Noblet was the designer of these cards. He may have been just a printer or merely an excellent copier of an earlier deck that is now lost. The depth and sophistication of the concealed Judaic content suggest that the Jean Noblet Tarot was created by a group of scholars who probably reworked their design over many years, trying to cram as much content as possible into 22 cards,” Appel said.
But that’s just speculation. That’s as far as Appel will go on the subject, hoping that soon the right academics and scholars will recognize there is an amazing story here that warrants their attention. Meanwhile, he’s collaborating with the Jewish Arts Collaborative of Boston and artist Jonathan Prince in creating an augmented reality museum exhibition on the Jean Noblet Tarot de Marseille. ❖
Appel’s talks can be found on YouTube. The Torah in the Tarot, Appel’s booklet, together with a set of faithfully modernized 22 cards by the contemporary Indian artist Swetha Pedapudi, can be found on www.torahtarot.com.
The writer shares Appel’s fascination with discovering the hidden meaning in cards that are used for personal growth, upliftment and serendipity triggers. She is the maker of The Genesis Way, a 44-card deck to trigger artistic and creative breakthroughs, in English, Hebrew, and Japanese editions. See www.genesiscards.com