Jewish Words



It is not widely known that the gibberish incantation of stage magicians and children’s party entertainers probably has Hebrew origins.

Scholars who support the Hebrew etymology say that abracadabra is a corruption of the Hebrew, ebrah k’dabri, meaning “I will create as I speak,” ie that the act of speech will magically create new realities. If this is indeed the derivation, then it would chime with the kabbalistic notion that the words and letters of the Hebrew alphabet have the power to create.

This idea is expressed in the Talmud’s statement about Bezalel, the master builder of the sanctuary, that “Bezalel knew how to combine the letters through which heaven and earth were created” (Berachot, 55a). Bezalel’s creative ability grew out of his insight into the process by which God created the world through combining words and letters. This, in turn, is related to the midrashic theme that the Torah preceded the world and served as its blueprint: “God looked into the Torah and created the world.”

The vulgar popular use of abracadabra as a magic spell may be a faint echo of these exalted ideas. Perplexingly, the Oxford English Dictionary agrees that abracadabra is a kabbalistic word, “supposed when written triangularly, or in some other forms, to be a charm against fevers etc.” However, the OED thinks that it is a Latin word, originally of Greek origin, first found in the secondcentury Roman writer, Quintus Serenus Samonicus

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