Word of the Day Abracadabra: Be Careful What You Wish For

It may be technically Aramaic, but this magical word is easily intelligible to Hebrew speakers, as well as being a favorite of followers of the occult.

Ronen Shnidman
Ronen Shnidman
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Harry Potter, the 21st century's most famous caster of spells.
Harry Potter, the 21st century's most famous caster of spells.Credit: Jaap Buitendijk
Ronen Shnidman
Ronen Shnidman

Abracadabra, what a magical phrase – not only in the way it is used by magicians to conjure their tricks but also in the many permutations of meaning attributed to it.

The best-known use of this invocation of late would be the Avada Kedavra or Killing Curse in J.K. Rowling's popular magical fantasy Harry Potter book and movie series. And boy does Rowling give this bit of hocus pocus a powerful bite. Harry Potter, the boy who lived... come to die. Avada Kedavra!, screams Lord Voldermort in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the first book in which the curse is properly introduced.

The famed British author – while admitting to fans in an interview at the Edinburgh Book Festival in April 2004 that she took liberties which much of her mythological and occult source material – claimed she based her version of Avada Kedavra on the original Aramaic form of the phrase. According to Rowling, the original meaning of the phrase was let the thing be destroyed, and that it was used to cure illnesses.

Rowling's interpretation has some backing both in ancient Roman-era sources but also in the work of the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe. In his account of the London's Great Plague of 1665, A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe described the poor masses of the English capital resorting to all sorts of religious and occult charms to ward off the deadly bubonic plague, including abracadabra amulets.

During the mid-19th to early 20th century British obsession with occult spirituality took off and famed English occultist Aleister Crowley decided to take his own stab at appropriating the magical word. He reconstructed abracadabra through a kabalistic reformulation as abrahadabra in his work, The Book of the Law, which outlined the basic principles of his new religion, Thelema. Crowley, described his abrahadabra as "the Word of the Aeon, which signifieth The Great Work accomplished. He also wrote, It means by translation Abraha Deber, the Voice of the Chief Seer.

While Crowley's translation of abracadabra may seem a bit dubious both in accuracy and his own underlying sanity, the best explanation seems to come from the self-described Millionaires' Magician, Steve Cohen. Cohen recently created a History Channel special called Lost Magic Decoded in 2012 looking at old and lost magic tricks, but already took a shot at abracadabra in his 2006 book Win the Crowd.

Abracadabra belongs to Aramaic, a Semitic language that shares many of the same grammar rules as Hebrew, says Cohen in Win the Crowd. 'Abra' is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew 'avra,' meaning, 'I will create.' While 'cadabra' is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew 'kedoobar,' meaning 'as was spoken.' Together the phrase means, 'I will create as has been spoken,' a fitting thing for a magician to say before pulling a rabbit out of his hat.

Just remember, whether hexing your enemies, warding off disease or performing parlor tricks, please use your Semitic charms with care or expect a stern talking to from Hogwarts' Prof. Flitwick.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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