As we approach the solemn occasion of Rosh Hashanah, a time of reflection, the start of a new year, and a seder wityh lots of fruits, it is fitting to discuss what Adam and Eve actually consumed at the beginning of creation. In the simple reading of the text, no fruit is specified as mankind gained recognition of good and evil. Drawing upon traditional Talmudic sources and insights from later Jewish scholars (Rishonim), we embark on a journey to uncover the nature of the fruit that forever changed the course of human history.
The common depiction of an apple is due to a change in terms when the English “apple” refered to any type of fruit. In fact, no Jewish source suggests it is an apple that they ate.
Talmudic Insights: The Talmud, the central text the Oral Torah, provides various perspectives on the identity of the forbidden fruit. In tractate Sanhedrin (70a), Mar Ukva first posits that it is a grape, citing that it is associated with leading to sin with wine, relating it to other early moments of failure as with Noah, but also that it is associated with joy unlike any other food. This dichotamy of good (joy) and evil (suffering) is inherint in our unique relationship to grapes.
Ravi Yehuda holds that it was wheat, since wheat it associated with gaining knowledge of Torah and speech. This on its face is difficult to understand as wheat is not a tree, nor is it eaten raw, but in tractate Ketubot 111b it states that in the future, wheat stalks will appear large again, so he argues in the Garden of Eden they were like the cedars of Lebanon. Further, the blessing for bread means “the one who takes out bread from the earth”, illuding to bread growing directly from these giant stalks. On top of all that, the word for wheat is חיטה (chita) and sin is חטא (cheit).
Ravi Nechemia states that the fruit in question was a fig, quoting the text that they covered themselves in fig leaves. This would make the attempted reparation of the sin, covering their nudity, closer to the nature of the sin.
One medrash suggests that it is the etrog (citron) because it is identified as the “pri etz hadar” (fruit of a beautiful tree) used on Sukkot, with a beautiful sight, fragrance, and the bark has the same taste, going off the line “fruit trees that produce fruit” (Genesis 1:11) and later “the tree was good for eating” (Genesis 3:7) because the tree itself is fruit.
Notably, Ravi Yehoshua ben Levi argues that the identity is not important. Mankind was not supposed to eat this, so God would not make it known to us now that we have already sinned as a result of it.
The Rambam, one of the most famous medieval commentators, takes a fairly radical sounding but relatively common stance that it is only allegorical and that it alludes to gaining knowledge of physical relations. Even the Ibn Ezra, another influential commentator, who does suggest that the fruit was indeed a fig, still goes on to explain that acquiring knowledge of good and evil brings with it desire; while sight of the Tree of Knowledge caused desire, eating of it causes a lust that can be unhealthy.
The contrasting Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, also present in the Garden of Eden, represents the moral duality of human nature. It symbolizes the ability to discern between right and wrong, but also highlights the potential for human beings to misuse their free will and stray from God’s commandments.
The Symbolism for Rosh Hashanah: As we reflect on the story of Adam and Eve which took place on Rosh Hashanah, the symbolism of the forbidden fruit becomes particularly poignant. Just as Adam and Eve faced a choice that carried profound consequences, Rosh Hashanah is a time for us to evaluate our own choices and actions over the past year. Challah from wheat, saying Kiddush on wine, and eating the fruits of Israel are all part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. Just two weeks later, the etrog plays a central role in the observance of Sukkot. No matter which of the fruits it was, it now can be used for mitzvot.
For every opportunity to come closer to the path of God, there is an equally great temptation to sin. Rosh Hashanah is the highest point of the year to introspect, repent, and reset our spiritual compass. One must be careful not to squander it as happened eating the fruit—whatever type it was—in Gan Eden.
The mystery of the forbidden fruit continues to captivate our imagination, inviting us to explore the nuances of human nature and the significance of choice. While traditional Talmudic sources and Rishonim provide insights into the nature of the fruit, the essence of the story need not be limited by interpretation.