By eating from the Tree of Knowledge, we lost the ultimate knowledge of truth
What exactly happened to Adam and Chava after eating from the Tree of Knowledge? How were they different than before? Was it a change in their knowledge, their outlook, did human nature change? And most importantly, how does this relate to our lives? The attempt at answering these fundamental questions starts with Midrash Rabbah (15:7). However, some of the opinions in the Midrash seem to beg for a deeper understanding. For that we turn to the great 16th century commentator to Midrash Rabbah (Shmuel ben Yitschak Ashkenazi of Constantinople) the Yiffei Toar.
A brief overview of the 5 opinions in the Midrash
The opinion of Rabbi Meir in the Midrash is that the Tree of Knowledge was wheat. The reason is that wheat is associated with knowledge:
כַּד לָא הֲוָה בַּר נָשׁ דֵּעָה אִינּוּן אָמְרִין לָא אֲכַל הַהוּא אִינְשָׁא פִּתָּא דְּחִטֵּי מִן יוֹמוֹי
“When a man lacks knowledge people say ‘he never ate a piece of wheat bread in his life.” (Midrash Rabbah 15:7)
Eating bread made of wheat therefore signifies reaching a certain state of intellectual development. This, of course, begs the question, did Mankind achieve a higher intellect by eating from the forbidden fruit? Was God trying to keep us in the dark? As we will see, this question is discussed at length by the Rambam in the Guide to the Perplexed. Not to mention the fact that the Yifei Toar will further explain the meaning of eating wheat.
The second opinion is that of Rabbi Yehuda bar Iyloy רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר אִלְעָאי who said that Adam and Chava ate grapes. Grapes is associated with the drunkenness and specifically to the immorality of Sedom:
עֲנָבֵמוֹ עִנְבֵי רוֹשׁ אַשְׁכְּלֹת מְרֹרֹת לָמוֹ, “The grapes for them are poison, A bitter growth their clusters.” (Devorim 32;33).
The fact that Adam and Chava were exposed to certain desires is a traditional way of understanding this episode, although the Yiffei Toar will take exception to this interpretation.
Rabbi Abba of Akko said it was an Etrog tree. This is based on Chava’s reaction to the tree:
וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל,
“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..” (Bereishis 3:6)
Why does this indicate an Etrog tree? Because Chava was admiring the fact it was the only tree in which the bark and the fruit taste the same. This view, of course, begs further explanation.
Rabbi Yossi said it’s the fig tree because we see that Adam and Chava made clothing from the leaves of a fig tree. The Midrash says that no tree wanted to associate with Adam and Chava after the sin, except of course, the tree that they originally sinned with. This opinion is also elusive.
Finally, the last opinion, Rabbi Azaria and Rabbi Yehuda in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, רַבִּי עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבִּי יְהוּדָה בַּר סִימוֹן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִ, is that God will never reveal which tree it was so as not to embarrass Adam. This will be further explained.
The Yiffei Toar on the 5 views in the Midrash:
The Yiffei Toar starts with a tough theological question mentioned previously. What’s wrong with Adam and Chava eating from the Tree of Knowledge and acquiring wisdom? Was Mankind supposed to stagnate in some sort of animal-like state of low intelligence. Furthermore, how could God even expect Adam and Chava to comprehend a request not to eat from the tree when they were functioning on such a low intellectual level? As we will see, this is the very same question that the Rambam deals with when he formulates his approach to the entire episode.
The Yiffei Toar believes that the 5 opinions expressed in the Midrash are not about what kind of tree it was. Rather, what exactly was the effect that eating from the Tree of Knowledge had on Adam and Chava? What powers of transformation did the fruit possess? Based on the exact nature of the transformation, an appropriate “tree” was chosen to be the real Tree of Knowledge.
The first opinion: Rabbi Meir – wheat
The Yiffei Toar quotes from a Sefer called Derech Emunah (2:2) which says that eating from the Tree of Knowledge triggered a more active imagination. This leads to a deeper investigation of ideas but also draws one closer to and provides a stronger identification with pleasure. It’s like a talented, blind man who has theoretical knowledge about how society interacts and what their surroundings look like. When he suddenly regains his sight he now has a more accurate idea of what he previously had only imagined. Now it is more realistic for him to seek out the pleasures of this world that were not available to him before.
Yiffei Toar adds something a bit mysterious. Perhaps he’s addressing the fact that attaining a higher level of intellect seems like a positive development. He said Adam and Chava should have been drawn to the Tree of Life which would have provided the truths behind everything they perceived. Instead they settled for an understanding that was limited to the mechanics rather than the underlying truths. The insight foreshadows the Rambam.
The Second opinion: Rabbi Yehudah bar Iyloy – grapes:
Eating from the Tree of Knowledge did not bring about an elevated state of knowledge rather an elevated state of desire (תאוה).
The Yiffei Toar does not like this approach based on the following objection cited by the Ramban (Nachmonides on Bereishis 2;9): The snake promised Chava that eating from the Tree of Knowledge would make them “like God, knowing good and evil” (Bereishis 3:5) . וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹקים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע This is indeed what happened. וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע “And the Eternal God said, ‘Behold man has become like one of us knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Furthermore, the snake is counted among those who were punished for telling the truth.* All this has nothing to do with Adam attaining an increased state of desire (תאוה).
The third opinion: Rabbi Abba of Akko – Etrog:
The Yiffei Toar expressed his difficulty with the previous opinion based on the objection raised by the Ramban (Nachmonides). He cites the Ramban again to explain this new opinion. The Ranban says that Adam and Chava were inclined to do what was proper, in line with all of nature. However, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge they lost their instinct for choosing good.** They now engaged in a choice of good or evil. The Etrog tree represents the original nature of Adam and Chava. Good and bad were exactly the same. They had no inclination towards one or the other. This is portrayed by something highly unique about the nature of an Etrog tree. As was previously mentioned, the fruit and bark of the Etrog tree tastes exactly the same. Once they partook of the Etrog they lost their original nature that precluded the need for choosing good from evil.
The fourth opinion: Rabbi Yossi – Fig Tree:
(Quoting from the ‘Baal Haakeida”) the Yeffei Toar says that the snake engaged Adam and Chava in philosophy such that good and evil were no longer readily distinguishable. The fig tree represents the sweet, seductive nature of philosophy. In Hebrew the word for fig,תְאֵנָה, also means to complain as if to say that eating from the fig tree brought a certain discontent with the the status quo.
The Midrash had mentioned that the fig tree was the only tree that would associate with Adam and Chava after their sin. The Yiffei Toar sees this to mean that once you take a philosophical approach, you have now adopted a certain haughtiness. You think that you don’t need God. You understand the world quite well without God. Now philosophy becomes the only door open to you. The Torah perspective has become distant and remote.
The fifth opinion: Yehoshua Ben Levi, who said that we can’t know the answer.
In the words of the Midrash: חַס וְשָׁלוֹם לֹא גִּלָּה הַקָּבָּ”ה אוֹתוֹ אִילָן לְאָדָם, וְלֹא עָתִיד לְגַלּוֹתוֹ. “Heaven forbid that God would ever reveal the kind of tree that it was. Not to Mankind and not in the future.”
We see from the case of a woman who had relations with an animal that the animal is killed as well. Wasn’t the animal an innocent victim? Yet we don’t want people pointing at the animal and saying “ that was the animal who had relations with so and so.” We are therefore protecting the honor of the woman (even though she is not alive). Therefore, since the Torah safeguards the honor of Adam’s descendants, it would certainly safeguard the honor of Adam and Chava.
The Yiffei Toar feels that this approach is based on the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim*** חלק א’, ב׳, 1:2); The Rambam is answering a query from someone who, as we mentioned earlier, could not understand why God would deny Mankind superior intellect. The Rambam dismisses the question because it was based on a false understanding of this episode. In actuality, Adam and Chava had a superior intellect. It was based on a clear ability to discern between truth and falsehood. This level of intellect was on a distinct dimension that we cannot even comprehend. After eating the from the Tree of Knowledge, they were punished because they forfeited their unique intellect for one that was imbued with subjectivity and emotion. Instead of living in a world of absolute truths, they were trapped in a world of elusive truths. So while being naked did not seem wrong from the perspective of their original intellectual vantage point, it was now a source of embarrassment.
Since these concepts are unknowable and God wants to protect the image of Adam, Chava, and all of Mankind, the true identity of the Tree of Knowledge will never be revealed. Therefore the final opinion in the Midrash is that we should not be investigating what happened in the Garden of Eden. It is based on a lost dimension of intellect that we will never comprehend. And knowing which tree we ate from will diminish the stature of Mankind who, after all, was created in the image of God.
I want to answer one of the most important questions that we started with. What difference does this all make in our lives? We can get a glimpse of what we lost from each of the 5 opinions. However, we can glean most poignantly from the Rambam that we indeed lost something immense. We live in a world full of beauty and potential but forever compromised by falsehood.
When Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the world lost the ultimate knowledge of truth.