Review: Tarot: The Open Reading and the CBD Tarot de Marseille

I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what it is about Yoav Ben-Dov’s book Tarot: The Open Reading that makes me enjoy it so, that makes me feel as if this were the book I needed right now. This doesn’t happen very often. I have a minuscule cadre of books that I constantly refer to or reread for this or that information or author’s voice. This book has made the cut, but not for the information that I thought it would.

Open Reading Cover
Cover image of Tarot: The Open Reading.

First, I do enjoy Ben-Dov’s authorial voice. Yoav Ben-Dov holds a Ph. D. in the Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics and has taught at  Tel Aviv University. He writes his book as a scientist, as an academic would: he has done his research on the history, beliefs, and meanings associated with tarot throughout the years, assimilated and processed this information, and arrived at a set of rational, personal interpretations, backed by the aforementioned research that he then presents to his reader. The author acknowledges the esoteric traditions associated with tarot while deftly avoiding allegiance to any and views many of the astounding claims about tarot and its history with a healthy skepticism. As someone in the backwoods of academia myself, I can see the process and greatly appreciate it. Ben-Dov, however, infuses his book with something else that many academic treatises (and oddly, many books on the tarot) lack: love.

Within the book, readers find a comfortable introduction to what tarots are: their origins to the best of our knowledge and the two major esoteric schools to have formed a substantial canon of belief around them, namely the French and English (because why should they even agree on that?). Fortunately, Ben-Dov is concerned with recreating the Convers Marseille deck, a decidedly French School approach, though he notes immediately that since these eighteenth-century cards had no esoteric indicia, the practitioner’s own preferences, or lack thereof, would be the deciding factor. He describes the potential significance of the flow of lines, the tilt of a head, the stance of the legs, even the wrinkles in the face of a figure if he feels it of note.  Even as the author extrapolates the possible meanings of the very limited palette of colors used in the deck, he suggests that the reader bring his or her own feelings to bear when deciding what a color represents. In fact, the meanings that he does ascribe to the cards (and this is the bulk of the book) depend largely on his very painstaking and loving examination of the cards themselves. This descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to the entire reading process is a true hallmark of this work, and I, for one, must laud his gentle, but insistent urging to simply get to know the cards, whatever those cards might be.

Another monumental gift is Ben-Dov’s introduction to the reading session itself, and I find myself reading and rereading this section of the book. Here, we find the personality of the author and hear his care and concern for these cards and what we do with them. As a card reader who has occasionally slipped into lazy habits, I needed this section of the book now. Ben-Dov, surrounded as he is by science and the desire for empiricism, still finds magic in the universe, even if that magic is simply science we don’t yet understand. He reaffirms something I thought I knew, but had forgotten: the need to pay attention.  Details, he stresses, are important. He talks much of the environment of the session, the temperament of the session, the atmosphere. He encourages the reader to do what I had forgotten: make the reading a sacred act. For this, I am grateful.

The cards themselves are Ben-Dov’s other expression of love for the tarot. The CBD Tarot de Marseille is quite an accomplishment. I already own several Marseille-style decks and historical reproductions of other similar decks, so I didn’t really know what to expect.. What makes this deck different, special? The answer again falls to Ben-Dov and his obvious affection for these cards. He and his collaborators have recreated, not reinvented, a 1760s-era Convers Marseille deck. With regard to some color choices and facial expressions, there were some compromises to historical authenticity, which Ben-Dov addresses, but by and large, if there was a consistent “mistake” in the originals, then any historical idiosyncrasies were kept. He explains this as well. This is a faithful recreation and won’t look like a historical reproduction for a few hundred years.

CBD Tarot de Marseille back design

The images are so clear and crisp that I find myself looking them over from top to bottom. I have used Marseille decks before, but I have never seen a Marseille deck so lovingly recreated with line quality and color quality as beautiful as this. They are a wonderful size, as tall as the standard Rider-Waite but narrower, and the quality of the cards themselves is outstanding. Ben-Dov states that he used the highest quality cardstock that the Belgian printer CartaMundi offers, and I believe him. The cards slide seamlessly over each other and shuffle beautifully. The back design that Ben-Dov created is also a lovely accent.

Though I do hate to compare, some things beg for comparison. Below, I have taken a picture of four common Marseille decks. In every picture, they are, from left to right, the Fournier Marseille, A.G. Müller’s Convos,  Ben-Dov’s CBD Marseille, and the Grimaud Ancien Marseille. I don’t think that I could adequately describe how different “Marseille” decks could be, but these pictures show the intimate differences between these decks. The Fournier really does its own thing in comparison, but I like it, so here it is. The Convos was surprising. Until I made this comparison, I had never noticed that the Convos cards were as wide as the standard Rider-Waite, thereby altering the composition of the cards to suit the wider format. To the far right, the classic Grimaud looks the most like the CBD, but if one enlarges the pictures, the differences in line quality and color are immediately apparent. For my money, the CBD wins, hands down. Thank you again, Dr. Ben-Dov, for these contributions to the world of tarot.

For more information on the production of these items or how to order the book Tarot: The Open Reading or the CBD Tarot de Marseille deck itself, please go to Ben-Dov’s website

Addendum: It is with the greatest sadness that I report Dr. Yoav Ben-Dov’s sudden passing in December 2016. When I first published the review of his tarot, we communicated briefly, and he was as warm, friendly, and supportive as his dedication to and love of his work suggested. I offer my sincerest condolences to his friends and family.