Abracadabra, with its exotic-sounding cadence and mysterious connotations, is magic's most enduring incantation. For at least a century, occultists and magicians, and even the occasional rabbi, have speculated that the word--uttered by magicians before performing a trick--has roots in Aramaic, an ancient, nearly extinct Semitic language and precursor to Hebrew.
The prevailing theory links abracadabra to an Aramaic phrase, avra kedavrah, which, some argue, translates as "I create as I speak." Avra, it is said, can be interpreted as "I create" and davrah, which bears similarity to the Hebrew davar, means "to speak."
Lawrence Kushner, a rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, is unsure of abracadabra's origin or when it first appeared in magic's lexicon, but he believes it has Jewish roots. "Unlike in any other religious traditions that I know of, the god of the Jews speaks the world into being," says Kushner, who wrote about the abracadabra-Aramaic connection in his 1998 book, The Book of Words. Indeed, the word evokes the opening of Genesis 1:3, "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." In a magic context, "I create as I speak" is a fitting preamble to an act of conjuring: By chanting abracadabra, the magician evokes the power of God to make something from nothing.
"It's like a divine voice stating the phrase as opposed to the magician himself," explains magician Steve Cohen, who performs the long-running "Chamber Magic" show at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "The magician is acting as a conduit between God and the earth, transforming the powers from beyond to the presentation he's giving at the moment."
But the theory has naysayers--includ-ing scholars who doubt that avra kedavrah is a properly constructed Aramaic phrase, calling into question the veracity of abracadabra's Jewish backstory. "There is no clear etymology for abracadabra," says Geoffrey Kahn, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of Cambridge. "Some have suggested an Aramaic origin, but this is only because it ends in a, which is a common ending of Aramaic nouns." In a blog post earlier this year on The Aramaic New Testament, translator Steve Caruso attempts to debunk the so-called Aramaic "myth." He concedes that avra could come from barey, the Aramaic verb for "to create," and be extrapolated to "I will create." The prefixki (or -ke), he writes, could mean "like" or "as" in Aramaic. But the rest of the sentence, Caruso argues...