Saturday, August 25, 2007

ARAMAIC WATCH: The Village Voice astrology column delves into Kabbalah and Aramaic etymology.
CANCER (June 21-July 22): According to the Haggadah, an ancient Jewish text, the first thing God made, before anything else, was the Torah. This book was "written with black fire on white fire." The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet became the raw materials out of which the Divine One forged heaven and earth. Now you, Cancerian, have a chance to get firsthand evidence of the power that language has to shape experience. In the coming days, I suggest that you formulate what you say with great precision. The words you use will have the power of the ancient magical incantation, abracadabra, which is derived from the Aramaic word meaning "I create as I speak."
"Haggadah (Aggada) is a genre of rabbinic texts (lore or legend rather than law), not a specific text. This material sounds as though it comes from the early Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah (Sefer Yesira, "The Book of Creation"; online translation of uncertain value here; old introductory article here, authoritative 2005 edition by A. P. Hayman here), although it may be that Aggadic texts present some of the same ideas.

As for Abracadabra, the suggested Aramaic phrase is a plausible etymology, although others are possible as well. The history of the incantation and the various proposed etymologies are summed up in this article by Michael Quinion and this Wikipedia article. They, incidentally, provide additional evidence for the influence of Jewish lore on Harry Potter. On that, Quinon is a little imprecise:
Fans of the Harry Potter books will know the killing curse, Avada Kedavra, in which J K Rowling seems to have combined the supposed Aramaic source of abracadabra with the Latin cadaver, a dead body.
Wikipedia is more precise:
The "Killing Curse" in the Harry Potter stories may have been taken by J. K. Rowling from an Aramaic form "avada kedavra" or similar, which roughly means "what I speak is destroyed," influenced by the Latin word cadaver, meaning "corpse". This form differs from the "I create as I speak" form ("Avara Kedavra") by a single letter in the English transliteration; it is one of the few spells in Harry Potter not derived entirely from Latin.