>I'm a bit confused about why the Hebrew alphabet shows up so often in occult
>or mystical contexts that are essentially non-Jewish. Some packs of Tarot
>cards have Hebrew letters on the cards, and I've also seen Hebrew letters in
>diagrams in books that were occult but didn't specifically mention the
>Kabbalah. What could the Hebrew alphabet possibly have meant to non-Jewish
>users of Tarot cards? If an allusion to the Kabbalah, how would they have
>known of the Kabbalah, which isn't even widely familiar among Jews?
Though I have no idea about the Tarot cards or books you refer to, I have
at least some suggestions related to the prominence of jewish references in
a) Jews from at least the time of the 8th century, but more prominent from
the 7th/6th century BCE onwards lived in various places outside Palestine
(e.g. Mesopotamia, Egypt), thus having and giving the opportunity of
contact and mutual exchange with other religions.
b) The jewish religion is considered to be very old and jewish
historiographers from the 3rd/2nd centuries BCE propagated this view within
a framework of competing old religions, such as, e.g., the egyptian
religion and their propagandists (c.f., Peter Pilhofer, PRESBYTERON
KREITTON, Der Altersbeweis der juedischen und christlichen Apologeten und
seine Vorgeschichte, WUNT 2/39, 1990).
c) The jewish religion is the religion of the "word" (iconoclastic). It
worships a god whos name could not be pronounced, the tetragrammaton JHWH.
This is in itself very mysterious and gives rise to a lot of speculations.
Even in LXX (Greek translation of the Hebrew bible) MSS from BCE centuries
usually the tetragrammaton was written in old Hebrew characters (or as its
misconception PIPI). (Some) Jews used to have small phylacteries containing
the "schema jisrael" (Deuteronomy 6.4seq, including the tetragrammaton) in
hebrew characters, worn on the head or left arm.
To my way of thinking it is not hard to imagine why even non-Jews had been
attracted by this religion and some of it's paractices. Especially within a
magical context the power of names is of great importance. Therefore, we
know a lot of Greek magical papyri containing hebrew names such as
"sabbaoth" or "iao", though usually in greek transcription (c.f, K.
Preisendanz, Papyri Graeca Magicae, Leipzig 1931; more recent publications
on that by Morton Smith and Hans-Dieter Betz), usually serving as amulets.
From the top of my head I cannot firmly claim that there were amulets found
containing hebrew characters, but it seems quite likely that they existed.
Although it is usually hard to assess whether those amulets stemm from
jewish or non-jewish circles, it seems at least likely that their use was
not restricted to jewish circles alone.
Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies