The Latin word malum — meaning both evil and apple — has led to the interesting phenomenon of Adam and Eve being depicted in the Garden of Eden as having just taken a bite out of a ripe, juicy apple. In the vast majority of artwork, from the painting “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” by Titian (c. 1550), to the 2013 New Yorker cartoon “Adam and Eve Embrace in the Garden of Eden” by Lee Lorenz, it is clearly an apple that was the source of their misfortune.
But the rabbis of old would have been perplexed by this image. The biblical text uses the word pri, a generic word for fruit, to describe the infamous produce. Jewish scholarship has many ideas as to what fruit might be referenced in this text and apple is nowhere on the list. Indeed, scholars argue that it could not have been an apple, as apples would not have grown in that region of the world at that time.
In Brachot (40a), we find the rabbis arguing about the type of fruit in the garden. Rabbi Meir argues that it was grapes: “Nothing brings wailing and trouble upon [humans] even today other than wine.” A strong argument, especially with the proof of Noah’s behavior in our next parsha. In the same passage, Rabbi Nehemya claims the fruit was a fig. How else could Adam and Eve have so quickly accessed the fig leaves with which they fashioned their clothes? “They must have taken the leaves from the tree closest at hand, the Tree of Knowledge.” Rabbi Yehuda says they are both wrong. He argues for wheat, explaining, “… a child does not know how to call his father and mother until he tastes the taste of grain.” As humans grow older and are able to process more complex grains, so, too, are they able to process more complex understanding.
My favorite explanation comes from Bereshit Rabbah (15:7). After positing Rabbi Aba of Ako’s guess that the fruit was a citron (etrog), we find a compelling answer from Rabbi Azarya and Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon. They say (in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi): “God forbid (we guess what the tree was)! The Holy One Blessed be God never revealed the [type of] tree to Adam, and nor will God reveal it in the future…” We should not blame the tree for human behavior and thus we will keep its identity hidden.
Here, Jewish tradition balances the value of curiosity with that of honor for all creatures. Perhaps the television series “Dragnet” was channeling this message when it began each episode with the words: “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” We should always strive to protect the reputation of others, even when that means we might not know all of the facts ourselves. PJC
Rabbi Emily Meyer is an educator and the founder of Doodly Jew on Facebook. She is a visiting rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.