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When an old-school magician is about to reveal the seemingly impossible, he will often invite his audience to participate in the revelation by reciting the well-known “magic word” that has long been associated with transformation.

“Now,” says the man in the tuxedo with tails, “we must say the magic word.”

And that word is already on the lips of nearly every member of the crowd.

“Abracadabra,” they intone.

But what does that mean, exactly? It certainly sounds mysterious and rhythmic enough to be a magic word. Strange, how easily it rolls off the tongue despite its foreign feel…

I suspect that I’ll get some hate mail from a few illusionists for sharing what I’m about to disclose, but no matter. (Your enlightenment means so much more to me than their rants of condemnation!)

The earliest, documented use of the word “abracadabra” comes from the Roman imperial advisor Quintus Sammonicus Serenus in the late second century CE. In his only fully surviving work, De Medicina Praecepta, Serenus gives a treatment for ague (acute fever) that features the word etched into an inverted triangular amulet, thus:

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

The late Amram Kehati (PDF) argued that the origin was Hebrew and that it was comprised of three words: ARBA – ACHAD – ARBA, meaning FOUR – ONE – FOUR; which seems to correspond to the prescription by Serenus that the amulet be worn for nine days.

The explanation sounds logical, especially when the word is viewed from right-to-left, in the manner that the Hebrew language is read. However, there remains a troublesome transposition of the C and D. This would have the second of the three conjoined words reading ADACH (or DACHA) rather than ACHAD.

While it’s true that “the magic word” comes from Hebrew, the derivation emerges from a spoken (rather than written) emulation of the original phrasing.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit relates that the word stems from the Hebrew phrase “abra k’davrah”, meaning, “it came to pass as it was spoken”. This interpretation can also be logically (and historically) connected to the reason why the amulet was prescribed to be worn for nine days.

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the complete desolation of the second Jewish Temple by Roman forces in 70 CE, some prophets of the day turned a scornful eye upon Rome and prophesied against it. Nine years (plus one month and one day) later, the world’s then-greatest empire was rocked by a calamity of biblical proportions: the eruption of Vesuvius, which brought with it the fiery obliteration of the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae.

That tumultuous event deeply affected Serenus (though born about a century after the fact) because he was a passionate devotee of the work of Pliny the Elder. Pliny, the great Roman scholar and physician, perished while attempting a sea rescue of family and friends from Stabiae. This would then also seem to lend significance to the fact that the amulet designed by Serenus is shaped like an inverted volcano — as if to counter the earth’s paroxysmal fever.

In the world of performance magic, however, there’s another translation that might be well-suited, if ironic.

ABRACADABRA can also be broken out as follows:

HA’BRACHA’DAVRAH, meaning, The Blessing Word; or simply,

“The Magic Word”

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Sadducees, Pharisees & Essenes

jbookThe roles and significance of the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes in Jewish religious history has been much discussed and – more often than not – hotly debated. From whence did these three influential sects arise?

Here’s a brief article on the origin of their respective names.

The Sadducees were the Hasmonean priests of the Second Temple period (516 BCE to 70 CE) in Jerusalem. The name comes from the Hebrew name Tzadok, the high priest who anointed King Solomon and who was selected by the him to oversee the affairs of worship. The name in Hebrew (צדוק) means “righteous”. In the Greek histories, since there is no single Greek letter that makes the sound “tz” (the letter tzadi צ in Hebrew), the word gradually became more Hellenic.

That’s the easy one that everybody knows.

The Essenes, whose name we also obtain from the Greeks, is a case of language evolving in the opposite direction. The moniker began as the Greek term xénos (ξένος – stranger) and became incorporated into the local parlance between the time of Alexander’s Middle Eastern campaigns until the Roman occupation of the region. Koine Greek was widely spoken in the area, especially in commercial and cultural centres. Because there is no single letter in Hebrew to represent the sound “x“, a common “s” sound (samech: ס) was substituted with a placeholder vowel (aleph: א) standing at the head of the word – resulting in the Aramaic-Hebrew word Esseni (אסני). Transliterated back into Greek, this resulted in the word Εσσηνοι (Essenoi), as recorded in the histories of Josephus.

Neither Josephus, nor Philo, nor Pliny the Elder recognised how the term came into being; never suspecting that it originally came from Greek! The question would seem to be why the Essenes, a sect of religious ascetics who studied almost exclusively in Hebrew would choose to call themselves by a Greek word. And the short answer is that they didn’t; they were called that by the rest of the population. Often living and studying in caves or other rough shelters, they ventured out only to attend select discussions and ceremonies at the Temple in Jerusalem. No wonder everyone called them ‘strangers’. They lived most of their lives below the radar since the time when the armies of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 586 BCE, when they fled to the desert regions with as many scrolls as they could carry and sought shelter in caves. Ironically, they also considered themselves Tzadokites (Sadducees) since they were largely descended from the line of Tzadok – unlike the Hasmonean high priests who later came to hold that name themselves.

The Pharisees were generally composed of those returning from the Babylonian exile after Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and Media, conqueror of Babylon, granted them leave to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple – as prophesied by the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel. During the time that they were separated from the activities in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, they resurrected the oral traditions to a degree not seen among the Israelites since the time of Moses. They had little choice. They had but fragments of their sacred texts that they were able to smuggle with them into captivity; a situation that eventually led to the creation of the Babylonian Talmud and the development of the Rabbinic tradition. Without an acknowledged central authority, religious instruction quickly devolved into a new, more distributed format. The term Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word פרושים (perushim), meaning ‘separated ones’.

Upon their return to Jerusalem and environs (having lived for almost 50 years in exile under a combination of Babylonian, Median and Persian rulers) they found that they didn’t immediately fit in. The Sadducees initially rejected their new teaching methods and the mostly Aramaic-speaking population wasn’t quite sure what to do with so many now-Farsi-speaking immigrants. This makes a double entendre of the name, since it can refer to their time of ‘separation’ and to the language (Parsi/Pharsi/Farsi) that they predominantly spoke.

In the end, it would take the efforts of all three sects to keep their common faith alive through many years of repression and persecution by Rome; the period during which the Second Holy Temple would be defiled and destroyed.

© 2009

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