What’s the Truth About. . . The Apple in the Garden of Eden?

by | in Jewish Law

By Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Misconception: Chava fed Adam an apple in the Garden of Eden.

Fact: The fruit’s identity is not revealed in the Biblical text, and while early Jewish sources offer a variety of suggestions about which fruit Chava fed Adam, an apple is not one of them.

Background: Shortly after God created man, He placed him in the Garden of Eden, with but one prohibition:

“And God took the man, and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to protect it. God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may certainly eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, do not eat, because on the day you eat from it you will certainly die’” (Bereishit 2:15-17).

God then created Chava, who was tricked by the devious snake.

“And the woman saw that the Tree was good to eat and desirable to the eyes and that the Tree was attractive to make one wise; she took some of its fruit and ate it, and she gave some to her husband and he ate. And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made for themselves loincloths” (Bereishit 3:6-7).

Despite their central role in the story, the Tree and its fruit are never identified in the text. That did not stop subsequent generations, including the rabbinic Sages, from trying to identify the Forbidden Fruit. Modern Western lore, as expressed through art, literature and popular culture, portrays the Forbidden Fruit as an apple. The Talmud (Berachot 40a; Sanhedrin 70a-b) offers three suggestions, and the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 15:7) repeats these three and then supplies a fourth. Each of these suggestions is supported by some aspect of the story.

Classic Suggestions:
Chazal state that the Forbidden Fruit was one of following:

Wheat: The Gemara explains that children know how to say “Daddy” and “Mommy” only after beginning to consume grains. The Midrash says that when one lacks intelligence, others comment that he has not eaten wheat bread. These statements provide a basis for concluding that the “Tree of Knowledge” was actually wheat. The Midrash,1 however, raises an obvious question: the verse discusses the “Tree of Knowledge” (eitz); how does a wheat stalk resemble a tree? The response given is that in the Garden of Eden, wheat stalks resembled pillars as tall as cedars in Lebanon. The Talmud (Ketubot 111b) foretells that in the future, wheat stalks will appear gigantic once again. An alternative answer provided is that the word “eitz” in the Bible can refer to either tree or wood, and thus, in this context, it could have meant “wood,” referring to the stalk of the wheat. Such a usage of the word eitz is found in Sefer Yehoshua regarding flax (2:6; Shabbat 2:3). Identifying the Forbidden Fruit as wheat is further supported by the similarity between the words chitah (wheat) and cheit (sin), alluding to the fact that this was the quintessential sin.

Wheat is not usually eaten raw. Did Chava actually produce bread? The Midrash implies that she did not, but rather the wheat stalks in the Garden of Eden gave forth finished bread. Adam’s punishment that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread” (Bereishit 3:19; cf. Berachot 58a) seems to support this idea by suggesting that post-sin, the acquisition of bread became significantly more difficult.

Fig: The immediate consequence of the sin was Adam and Chava’s realization that they were naked and they covered up their nakedness with a garment made of fig leaves (Bereishit 3:7). The Sages understood that the same object with which they sinned was used to begin to repair the consequences of the sin.2

Grape, vine or wine: The Gemara states that wine can cause wailing, as found in Bereishit 9:21, and the Midrash observes that wine can bring about bitterness, as evident in Devarim 32:32. Eating the Forbidden Fruit brought death with its accompanying wailing and bitterness to the world, perhaps indicating that wine was the culprit. Conversely, the Gemara (Yoma 76b) notes that wine makes one wise and thus it would make sense to refer to the grapevine as a “tree of knowledge.”

Indeed, wine has contradictory characteristics. It is used on joyous and holy occasions, but can have devastating effects when used inappropriately.3 The verse states that after eating from the Tree, “their eyes were opened” (Bereishit 3:5); indeed after drinking wine, one sees the world in a different light. The identity of the Fruit has practical implications since a number of customs developed as a result. There is, in fact, a custom for women to not drink wine from Havdalah and some of the explanations offered relate in part to the sin that Chava committed with grapes in the Garden of Eden.4 The Gemara implies that the grapes themselves were eaten, while another midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 19:5; cf. Vayikra Rabbah 12:1) states that Chava squeezed the grapes and they drank the wine.

Etrog: The suggestion that the fruit was an etrog is found only in the Midrash. Focusing on the unusual phraseology, the Midrash notes that the verse does not say “the fruit was good for eating,” but rather “the Tree was good for eating” (Bereishit 3:7). Consequently, the Midrash postulates that perhaps the fruit was an etrog since Chazal say (Sukkah 35a) that the etrog tree is the only tree in which the fruit and the tree taste the same. Surprisingly, the Ramban (Vayikra 23:40) rejects the Midrash’s first three suggestions regarding the identity of the fruit and accepts this last one. He says that an etrog in Aramaic means chemda (desirous), perhaps alluding to the sin.5 Ramban adds that the mitzvah of arba minim is to atone for the sin in the Garden of Eden that occurred with the etrog. A late custom developed (Elef Hamagen, in the back of Mateh Efraim 660:6) that on Hoshanah Rabbah pregnant women break off the pitum from the etrog and recite a prayer for their and their child’s well-being that centers on Chava’s sin.

The Tannaim who made these four suggestions link them to some aspect of the story. Furthermore, each of these Tannaim, who lived in Eretz Yisrael, suggested plants, with the exception of the etrog, which grew in the Mediterranean region and are included in the Seven Species for which Eretz Yisrael is praised.

Later Suggestions:
Banana: In the Middle Ages, the notion that the Forbidden Fruit is the banana appeared in several places. In 1277 Nathan HaMe’ati translated the Rambam’s medical work Pirkei Moshe (Aphorisms of Moses) from Arabic into Hebrew. In the section detailing the medicinal effects of the banana (20:88), Nathan HaMe’ati calls it the “apple of Eden.” The sixteenth-century Rabbi Menachem de Lonzano, in his Ma’arich, a work explaining foreign words in rabbinic literature, says the banana is a well-known fruit in Syria and Egypt that the Arabs call “the apple of Gan Eden.” Today, some bananas are known by the Latin names Musa paradisiaca (fruit of paradise) and Musa sapientum (fruit of knowledge). Identifying the Tree of Knowledge with the banana appears to be a Christian tradition from at least the twelfth century that enjoyed popularity but was never adopted by rabbinic sources.

Sabra: One of the most unusual suggestions made is that the Forbidden Fruit is the sabra. This is odd, as the sabra originated in Mexico and made its way to the Middle East in the sixteenth century. However, the sabra plant grew rapidly in Eretz Yisrael, and its origins were quickly forgotten. Known in Spanish as “higo de Adam”—Adam’s fig—the sabra was associated with the fruit of the Garden of Eden. In 1865, Rabbi Moshe Raisher wrote that the sabra was called the “fig of Adam HaRishon” (Sha’arei Yerushalayim, Sha’ar 6 – Fruits of the Land [p. 120 in 5768/2008 ed]). Rabbi Raisher describes the sabra as having a thick skin that is full of thin needles and flesh that tastes as sweet as honey. Similarly, in the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Yehoseph Schvartz (Tevuot Ha’aretz [1979], 382) reports that in the Land of Israel there is a “wild fig” called in Arabic “altz’aber,” but called by the masses “the fig of Adam HaRishon,” because they say that it is from the leaves of that plant from which Adam and Chava made for themselves a garment. But Rabbi Schvartz points out that the common name must be an error because the thorns in the leaves of a sabra are as sharp as needles, and it therefore cannot be used to make garments.6 And he correctly notes that the sabra is as an American species, implying that it is unlikely to have been in Gan Eden.7

Apple and Tapuach
Today, whether in art or popular culture, the Forbidden Fruit is most often depicted as the apple. In most European Christian8 art the fruit is depicted as an apple9 as well. The obvious question is, how did this idea come about? In the early Jewish sources there is no mention of an apple, and furthermore, in the Jewish tradition, the apple usually has a positive connotation and is associated with sweetness, not sin.10 There are several suggestions as to how the apple came to be associated with the Forbidden Fruit.

Latin confusion: One possibility is the confusion between the Latin term used for the Tree and the Latin word for apple. In the Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible— “the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” in Bereishit 2:17 is called “de ligno autem scientiae boni et măli.” The word măli is derived from the Latin noun mălum (pronounced mah-lum), meaning evil. However, there is another Latin noun mālum (pronounced may-lum) meaning apple, which was borrowed from Greek.11 In light of the similarity of the words, and due to the fact that in Europe the cold-weather apple was very popular, it is easy to see how people began to identify the Tree as an apple tree.

Etrog as apple: As noted above, in rabbinic literature there is quite a bit of support that the fruit was an etrog. Seemingly, in Biblical and rabbinic sources, the word tapuach refers to an etrog. The tapuach is described as being particularly scented (Shir Hashirim 7:9)12 and having fruit that appears on the tree before the leaves (Shabbat 88a). Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot, Shabbat 88a, s.v. pir’yo; Tosafot, Taanit 29b, s.v. shel) suggests that tapuach in the Bible and Talmud refers not to what was called tapuach in his time (the apple) but to the etrog.13 Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that the confusion between tapuach and etrog is responsible for the idea that the Forbidden Fruit was an apple (see Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Nefesh Harav [Jerusalem, 1994], 209-210).

The generic fruit: For most of history, the words used today to connote an apple (“apple,” “tapuach,” “pomme” in French, “pomum” in Latin) were words that denoted a generic fruit or a round object.14 The Mishnah (Tamid 2:2) calls the large pile of ashes in the center of the altar “tapuach” and the Rosh explains that anything gathered together and piled high is called tapuach.15 The pile of grapes in a wine press is referred to as a tapuach (Avodah Zarah  55a), as are the heel of a foot (Vayikra Rabbah 20) and the gold and silver round bells on a sefer Torah (Shulchan Aruch, YD 282:16). Rashi (Sukkah 35a, s.v. atu) seems to use the word tapuach to refer to “fruit.” In other languages the word apple is used to refer to generic fruit or round objects. In French, a potato is a pomme de terre, “apple of the ground,” the source of the Hebrew tapuach adamah. The name pomegranate is Latin for “seeded apple” and is known in some places as a “Chinese apple.” The Modern Hebrew name for orange, tapuz, is a contraction of tapuach zahav. In Italian the tomato is pomodoro, from “apple of gold,” and in French it was called “pomme d’amour,” leading to the colloquial “love apple” and the Hebrew agvania, which alludes to courtship. The phrase “apple of my eye” derives from the fact that the pupil was thought to be a round object and was called an apple. An Adam’s apple, the laryngeal prominence on the human neck (mostly found on males) is named either because it looks as if a piece of the apple got lodged there or, more likely, because it is a round bulge.

Put simply, not so long ago the word apple connoted both a generic fruit as well as a particular fruit; therefore, when one discussed the “apple” in the Garden of Eden, he meant the fruit that Adam and Chava ate.16 Eventually, this led many to conclude that the Forbidden Fruit was the fruit known today as the apple. It has been suggested that starting in the twelfth to thirteenth century, richer, larger apples began replacing the small apples used for cider in northern Europe and lush apple orchards were planted by monks, setting the stage for this now common and popular apple to be the central fruit in paradise.17

Yaakov brought it in: When Yaakov entered to receive the blessing from his father Yitzchak while wearing the clothes of his brother Esav, “[Yitzchak] smelled the fragrance of his garments, and blessed him. He said ‘See my son’s fragrance is like the smell of the field blessed by God’” (Bereishit 27:27). Commenting on this, Rashi quotes a midrash that says that the scent Yitzchak detected was that of the Garden of Eden; in a separate comment, the Talmud (Taanit 29b), again quoted by Rashi, says the field referred to is a “tapuach”orchard.18  If one understands the Biblical tapuach to mean an apple, then based on these sources one can conclude that the Tree was an apple tree.

Blame the Targum: The Targum to Shir Hashirim 7:9 “and the aroma of your face is like that of tapuach” translates tapuach as “tapuach deginta  dieden”19—the “apple” of the Garden of Eden. From there, it made its way into other translations.

The unknowable fruit: Many assume that the forbidden Tree was a recognizable, natural tree whose produce was forbidden in the Garden of Eden and when consumed it had a supernatural effect, yet today the tree’s fruit is permitted to be consumed. Furthermore, they assume that although the Torah did not identify the Tree, it provided clues through which the careful reader can deduce its identity. These assumptions are not necessarily accepted by all. The midrash cited earlier that provides four suggestions for the fruit’s identity (Bereishit Rabbah 15:7) concludes with an entirely different view:

“Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Yehuda Bar Simon said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi ‘Heaven forbid! The Holy One, blessed be He, never revealed [the identity of] that Tree to any person, and He never will.’”20

According to this view, God does not want humanity to look at a specific tree and say that it brought about the downfall of humanity.21 The other Sages seemingly did not agree with Rabbi Azariah and Rabbi Yehudah Bar Simon, as they did not hesitate to try to discover the identity (although their discussions may have been more about drawing out various ethical lessons than verifying the Tree’s actual identity). Certainly according to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, the identity of the Tree is not important. The story of Gan Eden has a message irrespective of the fruit’s identity: Man was given a blessed life but needed to adhere to certain boundaries and restrictions; he failed and paid the price. That message is relevant whether the Forbidden Fruit was a grape, a stalk of wheat, an apple or any other fruit.

1. This question is not asked in the Gemara, because the entire discussion begins with Rabbi Yehuda classifying wheat as a tree with regard to the recitation of berachot.
2. In a similar vein, when God later made “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve (Bereishit 3:21), Targum Yonatan understood they were made from the skin of the snake.
3. See e.g., Bamidbar Rabbah 10:4 and Midrash Tanchuma (Warsaw), Parashat Noach 13.
4. See my article entitled, “Wine from Havdalah, Women, and Beards,” Hakirah 10 (winter 2010): 175-187.
5. Ramban points the reader to the Targumim on Bereishit 2:9, Shemot 20:14 (or Devarim 5:18), and Tehillim 45:14.
6. Even if the Forbidden Fruit was the sabra, I am not sure why it was suggested that they made the garments from its leaves; the verse explicitly states that fig leaves were used.
7. For more on the sabra, see my article entitled, “What’s the Truth about . . . the Origins of the Sabra?” Jewish Action (winter 2004): 65-67.
8. While more common in Christian art, it can be found in Jewish sources as well. The Prague Haggadah, published in 5287 (1527), contains an illustration of Adam and Chava each holding an apple on the page with “Shefoch Chamatcha.”
9. In older art, the Forbidden Fruit is often a non-descript fruit.
10. For example, it was customary to send tapuchim to the sick (Tosefta, Bava Metzia 7:4); the Tur (OC 583) says it was an ancient custom to dip a sweet tapuach in honey on Rosh Hashanah; the Ben Ish Chai (year 1, Nitzavim: 4) says to eat a cooked apple with sugar on Rosh Hashanah and offers many reasons; and tapuach is suggested as an ingredient in charoset  (Pesachim 116a).
11. The binomial scientific name for apple is Pyrus mālus.
12. In giving examples of edible fruits with good aromas, the Mishnah Berurah 216:8 mentions etrog, apple and peri adamah.
13. A seeming proof that the tapuach in rabbinic sources is not the etrog: Ma’asrot 1:4 and Eruvin 29a mention them separately when listing fruit. A proof that it is a citrus and not an apple: in Pesachim 116a, it says the tapuach is added to the charoset to make it tart. On the confusing of apple and etrog, see Ari Zivotofsky and Naomi Zivotofsky, “Mixing Apples and Oranges: The Elusive Pesach and Rosh HaShana Ingredient,” Young Israel of Cleveland Torah Journal III (1996).
14. Despite other opinions, Professor Judah Feliks (EJ [1971] 3:223) is convinced that when tapuach is used in Tanach to mean a specific fruit, it refers to the apple (Pyrus mālus). It appears in multiple contexts in the Bible and rabbinic literature and plays a role in tradition. The Targum translates tapuach as etrog (Shir Hashirim 2:3) and as tapuah deginta dieden—the apple of the Garden of Eden (ibid., 2:5, 7:9).
15. The source for this may be the similarly written word tafuah, swelling.
16. This occurred with other words as well. “Deer” used to mean any animal, as in “But mice and rats and such small deer” (King Lear III.iv.144), and today refers specifically to ruminant mammals of the family Cervidae. Similarly, “corn” once meant any grain, hence the King James Bible has the Biblical Joseph storing corn, but today “corn” refers to the Mexican maize.
17. See Miklos Faust, “The Apple in Paradise,” HortTechnology 4 (Oct/Dec 1994), 338-343.
18. The Gra says that the berachah took place on Rosh Hashanah and this midrash is one of the reasons for the custom of dipping specifically an apple in honey (Gra, OC 583).
19. Some assume that this was referring to the banana.
20. This seems to have been the Rambam’s opinion (Moreh Nevuchim 2:30).
21. Meam Loez (Bereishit 2:17) learns from the Torah’s silence on the Tree’s identity not to remind one of a sin that he committed.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of brain science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2017.