Strange Customs How Did They Begin by R. Brasch
An excerpt from the book Strange Customs: How Did They Begin by R. Brasch a look at the origins of common practices such as the word abracadabra.
STRANGE CUSTOMS: HOW DID THEY BEGIN? by R. Brasch. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1976.
About the Book: A well-researched and easily read study of the origin of common practices and customs such as the wedding ring, pointing one's finger, clinking glasses prior to drinking wine, the unlucky number 13, housewarmings, and the application of eye shadow. The book covers large topics such as numbers, colors, witchcraft, astrology, mysticism, and other interesting subjects that help us to understand better a dimension of life that is generally taken for granted in our culture.
From the Book:
THE ORIGIN OF ABRACADABRA
Magicians and conjurers traditionally utter abracadabra to accomplish their tricks. The spectators know it is showmanship and that abracadabra is a word that makes no sense and has neither meaning nor power.
The assumption, however, is completely false. In abracadabra survives an age-old mystical formula. It was thought to ward off evil and to cure disease.
The first record of abracadabra dates back to Serenus Sammonicus, a second-century Roman author and the physician to Emperor Caracalla. He stated that abracadabra could serve as a potent antidote to sickness, if applied according to strict rules. There are numerous explanations as to what the strict rules were, which way the abracadabra worked and what its name signified.
Generally, abracadabra was thought to be a combination or abbreviation of several slightly mutilated Hebrew words, and this gave rise to a multitude of confusing claims. Some authorities traced it to the Hebrew term b'racha, or "blessing." Abracadabra, they said, really meant "pronounce the blessing." Blessing was not used in its traditional benedictory sense, however, but specifically referred to God. Speaking of Him in abracadabra would drive away the evil spirits, for they were unable to tolerate hearing the divine name.
A second interpretation found in abracadabra the linking of the Hebrew "blessing"-b'racha-with the mystical "word" davar. The word of blessing was sure magically to destroy any curse.
Abracadabra was a contracted quotation from the Psalmist's call on God (Ps. 144:6) to "cast forth lightning" (in Hebrew, b'rok barak), to scatter the evil forces. No doubt this suggestion was based on the similarity of sound between the two.
Another view reflected Christian theology, though it drew upon the Jew's Hebrew and Aramaic tongues for the obscure word it regarded as an appeal to the Trinity. In the name of "the father (ab), the son (bar) and the holy spirit (ru-ach ha-kodesh)," the formula tried to expel demons. It was a method well known in the ritual of exorcism.
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