Abracadabra is Jewish! Who knew?
I came across this tidbit while reading the late Rabbi Alan Lew‘s wonderful book, “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.”
More on the book in another post.
But Lew notes that the well-worn magician’s phrase has its roots in the phrase avrah c’dabrah in Aramaic, the day-to-day language during the Second Temple period and the language in which much of the Talmud was written, as well as the Kaddish prayer. Lew wrote:
The Aramaic words Avra c’dabrah mean ‘It came to pass as it was spoken,’ a popular talmudic dictum that expressed the widely held talmudic belief that things do indeed come to pass because they are spoken, that speech has the power to cause the world to come into being.
The linguistic roots of those words are the same as their Hebrew counterparts. Avr/ovr — to pass. As in Ivri’im or “Hebrews,” the people who passed over the river. Dbr/dvr — to speak, or word. As in d’var Torah or “word of Torah,” the commentary given at Shabbat services about the weekly Torah portion.
Lew brought this up to show the importance of speaking one’s repentance aloud as part of high holidays — the power of speech to make things real and change the world.
But you can see how “It came to pass as it was spoken” could also easily become an incantation to make magical things happen, especially if you invert the tense — “It will come to pass as it is spoken.”
Wikipedia says the first known reference to Abracadabra-the-charm came in the 2nd century C.E., in a Roman medical book that advised malaria sufferers to wear an amulet containing the word written in a triangle:
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B – R – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B – R
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A – B
A – B – R – A – C – A – D – A
A – B – R – A – C – A – D
A – B – R – A – C – A
A – B – R – A – C
A – B – R – A
A – B – R
A – B
Wikipedia also followed where my mind had quickly gone, to Harry Potter. In J.K. Rowling’s fictional universe, one of the blackest spells is Avada Kedavra, which causes immediate death of the person at whom it is directed. One of Rowling’s brilliant qualities is her ability to draw on linguistic traditions to create incredibly evocative names — Draco Malfoy as Harry’s bad-guy student nemesis, Severus Snape as a menacing teacher, Voldemort as the personification of evil.
Avada kedavra is another example of this. It draws on the hackneyed phrase that’s a part of every preschool magic show, but turns it dark by changing the “b” to a “v” and thus making it sound like “cadaver.”
And, apparently, Rowling was aware of its Aramaic roots, even if her translation is a bit different from Lew’s. Wikipedia again:
During an audience interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 15 April 2004, series author J. K. Rowling had this to say about the fictional Killing Curse’s etymology: “Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means ‘let the thing be destroyed.’ Originally, it was used to cure illness and the ‘thing’ was the illness, but I decided to make it the ‘thing’ as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.”