They Say Eve Tempted Adam With...?

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Mevarekhim ha'Hodesh
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies

Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on October 2, 2010
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

It's in every depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, from the silliest cartoon to the most treasured works of art in the greatest museums. Imagine any variant you like in your mind, and there it is, dangling from the tree. An apple. We all "know" that the forbidden fruit was an apple, don't we? But how do we know that? I'll give you a hint how we don't know it: from the actual text of Genesis.

The "tree of knowledge of good and evil" first appears in Gen. 2:9, where there is no mention of its fruit or a prohibition on eating from it; the commandment arrives in verse 17:

But as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.

The fruit of the tree is first mentioned by Eve (although she is not given this name until later), in her conversation with the serpent, in Gen. 3:1-3:

He [the serpent] said to the woman, "Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?" The woman replied to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, "You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die."

And when she succumbs to the serpent's persuasion and subterfuge, in verse 6, again the text is coy as to the type of the tree and its fruit:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.

The only type of tree to be mentioned by name comes after this moment (in the next verse), when the two first human beings become aware of and ashamed at their nakedness, and make themselves coverings of fig leaves.

The rabbis of our classical midrashic and talmudic literature noticed this omission in the text. They offered several ideas of their own as to what the fruit was, but one suggestion they do notmake is an apple, a fruit that was not unknown to the rabbis, but which is far less commonly mentioned by them than a variety of other fruits. One theory about how the fruit came to be understood as an apple is based in the similarity of the Latin words for evil - malus - and apple - malum. In any case, this identification does not appear to be a traditional Jewish answer to the question.

So what else might it have been? The rabbis offer four primary possibilities, each with certain reasons to recommend it, but also possibly some counter-arguments.

  1. Grapes. This view is attributed to Rabbi Meir in the Talmud (Berachot 40a and Sanhedrin 70a-b), and to Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai' in a series of midrashic texts (Genesis Rabbah 15:7, Leviticus Rabbah 12:1, Pesika d'Rav Kahana 20, Pesikta Rabbati 42) One key reason for this suggestion is the association of grapes with wine, and wine with drunkenness: "Nothing brings lamentation into the world like wine does," the Talmud states. So too Rabbi Yehudah cites Deut. 32:32 as a prooftext - "The grapes for them are poison, a bitter growth their clusters" - to demonstrate that it was grapes that first brought bitterness to the world (indeed, there is a play on the words here between "rosh [r,v,sh]," meaning poison in the verse, and "rosh [r,a,sh] meaning head or first). This view, it might be noted, emphasizes sin, punishment, and regret, and downplays or even ignores the trade-off of knowledge that humans received in this event.
  2. An etrog. I have to admit that this is the hardest of the four to adequately explain, at least insofar as the rabbinic attempts to "prove" it are concerned, and in fact it appears only in the midrashic texts but not the talmudic version of the discussion. In short, the rabbi who advocates for this position, Rabbi Abba of Acco, notes that in the Genesis account, there is slippage between referring to the "tree" and the "fruit of the tree" as the thing that is prohibited and that Adam and Eve ate. According to rabbinic legend, there is one tree whose branches and fruit both have a similar, pleasant taste: the etrog. One text also makes the connection to the command of taking an etrog on Sukkot, noting that Lev. 23:40 uses both "tree" and "fruit" to describe the required object: "On the first day you shall take the product ("fruit") of hadartrees..."
  3. Figs. As already noted above, figs are mentioned in the verse immediately following after Adam and Eve eat of the unidentified fruit; having been newly alerted to bodily shame, they use fig leaves to cover themselves. The rabbis, as readers who were both quite attentive to the details of the biblical text and expectant that the unusual features of the text would yield homiletical meaning, thus suggested a connection: the thing that was the cause of the sin (and the new awareness) became the beginning of the remedy. In some versions, the other trees who had not participated in the sin go so far as to refuse their help and their leaves to Adam and Eve. This view might then be said to have a hopeful element to it, in that while there is sin here, it is paired with the beginnings of repentance and repair. The most famous of medieval commentators, Rashi, presents this explanation, attesting to the strength of the rationale behind it. On the other hand another slightly later commentator, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, wonders why, if the leaves came from the same tree as the fruit, the verse does not say instead that they clothed themselves with "leaves of the tree of knowledge."
  4. Wheat. In the midrashic tradition, this is Rabbi Meir's view, whereas the Talmud attributes it to Rabbi Yehudah (though not necessarily the same person as Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai). I find this both the strangest and most intriguing of the suggestions. The objection to it is obvious and was raised by other rabbis almost as soon as the suggestion itself was made: since when can wheat be described as a "tree"? In a discussion between Rabbi Zeira and Rav Shmu'el bar Rav Yitzhak (the two versions vary as to which posed the challenge and which provided the answer), it is suggested that at first wheat plants "grew straight up like cedars of Lebanon." Perhaps not the most compelling answer, but the reasons for this identification are rather more interesting. First, there may be another word play here, between the Hebrew words for sin (h,t,a) and wheat (h,t,h). The texts themselves present two explanations, both of which associate wheat with knowledge. Where this view is attributed to Rabbi Meir, he supports himself by citing a popular adage applied in his time to an ignorant person: "That person has never eaten wheat bread in his life." Particularly insightful, though, is the Talmudic version of Rabbi Yehudah, who notes that in the development of an infant, the earliest speech learning takes place at about the same time as the young child begins to eat solid food, in the form of grain. That is, the consumption of wheat and grain is associated to the first stirrings of the most human of capacities, the one that distinguishes us from other known creatures (however intelligent they may be), i.e., speech. When we begin to eat wheat and to speak, we become the creature who can communicate and make choices - the one who has knowledge of good and evil, and all the responsibilities that entails.

And there is yet one more explanation to consider. One chain of rabbinic authorities pass down among them a tradition that the indeterminacy of the biblical text is both deliberate and thus to be preserved: "The Holy One did not reveal (what) it (is), and will not ever reveal it." God is, as it were, concerned for the honor even of this plant, "that people should not say, 'this tree brought death into the world.'" Perhaps out of a similar motive, Ibn Ezra (mentioned above), having rejected the idea that the tree was a fig, suggests instead that it was a unique species, existing only in Eden.

Finally, building on this last set of ideas, I'd like to offer one suggestion of my own, albeit with some inspiration from one my favorite non-Jewish religious thinkers - Bruce Springsteen - and one of the verses of his song, "Pink Cadillac":

Well now way back in the Bible

Temptations always come along

There's always somebody tempting

Somebody into doing something they know is wrong

Well they tempt you, man, with silver

And they tempt you, sir, with gold

And they tempt you with the pleasures

That the flesh does surely hold

They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple

But man I ain't going for that

I know it was her pink Cadillac...

Perhaps the tree and the fruit are not named because they are not one thing. For some it will be an apple, for others grapes, figs, an etrog, or wheat, and for yet others silver, gold, fleshy pleasures, or even a pink Cadillac. The point might be that life is full of temptations, and those temptations involve both risk (sin), but also potential reward (knowledge, the things that make us most human). The fruit of the tree could be anything. The true test is knowing what our own temptations are, and most often finding the strength to pass them up; but every now and then, also knowing when to take them - despite or because of the consequences.

Shabbat shalom.