Shiur #03: The Sin of the Tree of Knowledge – "Necessary Truths" and "Apparent Truths"

  • Rav Chaim Navon



a.            The Image of God


The first chapter of the Guide addresses the interpretation of the words "tzelem" (image) and "demut" (form). Why does the Rambam start his book with this particular linguistic question? A brief review of the chapter demonstrates to what degree this question exceeds the boundaries of a purely linguistic discussion. In this sense, this chapter represents the Rambam's linguistic and lexicographical focus throughout the first part of the Guide.


The starting point of this chapter is the assertion that man is created "in the image of God." If "image" is a bodily concept, this would suggest, Heaven forefend, that God is corporeal. Hence the Rambam explains that "image" refers to a spiritual essence. The assertion that man is created "in the image of God" therefore means that man's essence is similar, in some sense, to the essence of God ("though only apparently, not in truth").[1] What is this human essence, the crux of man's superiority over the animal kingdom, making him like God? It is his intellect.


Thus, proceeding from a seemingly linguistic analysis of religious language, the Rambam arrives at two concepts which are perhaps the most important themes in the Guide: the rejection of divine corporeality and the exalted status of the human intellect.


b.            What Is the Sin?


The story of the sin of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden has been the focus of great controversy over thousands of years. It is clear from the biblical account that the sin is a grave one; some opinions regard it as a prototype for human sins throughout the generations. What exactly does the sin symbolize? What does the story teach us? What was man's state prior to the sin, and what changed as a result of it? In this shiur we shall examine the Rambam's position regarding these questions.


The Rambam addresses these issues in the second chapter of the Guide. His point of departure is a "question of great importance" posed to him some years previously by "a learned man." This man was troubled by the apparent contradiction between the biblical text and the dictates of his own reason – i.e., he was one of the "perplexed" for whom the book was written. Let us now examine the question that earned him such an enthusiastic compliment:


"It would at first sight,” said the objector, “appear from Scripture that man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal kingdom, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or the ability to distinguish between good and evil. However, Adam's disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfection which is the peculiarity of man – i.e., the ability to distinguish between good and evil – the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race. It thus appears strange that the punishment for rebelliousness should be the means of elevating man to a pinnacle of perfection which he had not attained previously." (I:2)


The question rests upon the words of the serpent to the woman: "For on the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Bereishit 3:5). The inquirer assumes that "knowing good and evil" refers to intellectual perception. Thus it would seem that it was only in the wake of the sin that Adam and Chava were blessed with human intellect. If we assume that the intellect represents the "image of God" that is reflected in man, as the Rambam argues, then we arrive at a most peculiar conclusion: it is by virtue of sin that man achieved his greatest and finest quality.


c.            The Rambam's Interpretation of the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge


The Rambam offers a fascinating and very important response, which sheds significant light on his view of man and society. First of all, he immediately emphasizes most emphatically that it is clear that man was not imbued with his intellect only after the sin:


The intellect which was granted to man as the highest endowment, was bestowed on him before his disobedience. With reference to this gift the Bible states that man was created in the form and likeness of God. On account of this gift of intellect man was addressed by God, and received His commandment… for no commandments are given to the brute creature or to those who are devoid of understanding.


Man was endowed with intellect from the moment of his creation. What was it, then, that changed in the wake of the sin? According to the Rambam, what happened after the sin was not that man attained intellect, but rather the opposite: the intellectual power that he had enjoyed was now withheld from him. To explain this, the Rambam employs two contrasting terms: "muskalot" (necessary truths, or intellectual insights) and "mefursamot" (apparent truths, or moral conventions).


Insight is knowledge that man arrives at through pure analytical reason. Elsewhere the Rambam draws a distinction between "primary insight" and "secondary insight." The former refers to the a priori facts that are known to us with no need for any proof, for example, that a whole is greater than a part, or that two is an even number. Secondary insights involve a complex process of reasoning and clarification.


In contrast to both types of insight, the Rambam also speaks of "conventions." These are conclusions that emerge not from analytical reason, but from the reality of dealing with a specific human condition. As an example, the Rambam cites the prohibition of going about naked in public. This is not a prohibition that arises directly from reason – for in and of itself, such an act does not contravene any logical principle. There is a reason for the prohibition, but it is based on convention; it is intended as a means of contending with human weakness, as proven by the cumulative experience of many generations.


The Rambam argues that the "knowledge of good and evil" that Adam and Chava attained after their sin pertains to the realm of conventions, rather than insight:


Through reason, man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and the wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths. Thus, for example, it is not correct to say in reference to the proposition “the heavens are spherical” that it is “good,” or to declare the assertion that “the earth is flat” to be “bad.” Rather, we say of the one that it is true, of the other that it is false. Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet (true) and sheker (false), and of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov (good) and ra (evil).


Prior to his sin, man lived and thought on the level of intellectual certainty, on the level of "necessary truths" – the level of "true and false." His thinking was rigorously logical. Following the sin, his thinking sank to the level of "apparent truth," the level of "good and evil." Now he could no longer achieve the level of a priori certainty, and he had to resort to empirical knowledge, learned from practical experience. When the Torah says that after the sin Adam and Chava were at the level of "knowing good and evil," this represents not progress but rather a tremendous regression. Prior to the sin they had known truth and falsehood; now they knew only good and evil.


The Rambam describes the unfolding of the sin:


When Adam was yet in a state of innocence… he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths. The most manifest impropriety – to appear in a state of nudity – was nothing unbecoming according to his thinking; he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man's disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Bereishit 3:6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on account of his reason; and, having obtained knowledge of the apparent truths, he became wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what is improper.


Attention should be paid to a central point in the Rambam's description. According to his account, man's sin occurred prior to his consumption of the forbidden fruit. As the Rambam sees it, the turning point is expressed in the verse, "the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes (Bereishit 3:6)." This points to a human tendency towards the desires of one’s heart. At this point, man abandoned the control of the intellect, choosing to submit to his desire. This is the most serious sin, and it preceded the actual eating of the fruit.


Here we must make mention of another point that the Rambam raises. The Gemara (Yoma 29a) teaches that "sinful thoughts are more severe than sin itself." The simple explanation of this concept, as emerges from its context, is that sexual fantasy is more harmful in its effect on a person's wellbeing than is the act itself. However, the Rambam proposes an altogether different interpretation of the teaching, acknowledging himself that it represents an innovative view:


When a person sins, he does so in the realm of accidental traits connected with the corporeal element in his constitution; man sins only by his animal nature, whereas thinking is a faculty of man connected with his form [essence]. A person who thinks sinfully therefore sins by means of the nobler portion of his self. (Guide III:8)


According to the Rambam, sinful thoughts are more profoundly wrong than is the act of sin itself, since the sin is performed with the body, while thoughts are entertained by the intellect. The intellect is the most important part of a person; it is clearly more important than the body. Hence, if defilement and sin pertain to his intellect, that is a more serious infraction. This interpretation is quite typical of the Rambam.


The same outlook is reflected in his explanation of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. The sin was fundamentally committed the moment when man defiled the purity of his thinking by fantasizing, and already at this stage – even before he actually partook of the fruit – his intellectual insight was taken from him.


Following the sin, man descended from the level of "truth and falsehood" to the level of "good and evil," from a priori knowledge to empirical knowledge. The first component of this descent is easily understood: he lost the ability to engage in pure, clear thought. Since the sin, our thinking is no longer as sharp as it had been. But why did the consequences of the sin also include gaining knowledge of "apparent truths," of relative, moral conventions?


The answer to this question would seem to be twofold. First, as soon as the "necessary truths" disappear, man's new manner of thinking and consciousness automatically lead him to relative truths – i.e., to thinking that is no longer as logical and sharp, but based instead on moral conventions. Second, when we take into account the state of humanity following the sin, we find that the moral truths are of value. So long as man lives in accordance with his clear, straightforward, sharp intellect, he has no need for conventions. However, after he falls to the lower level, submitting to his desires and his fantasies, moral conventions become urgently necessary. The Rambam describes the idea of going about naked in public as "the most manifest impropriety." Indeed, this is precisely the immediate reaction of Adam and Chava following their sin: they discover that they are naked, and create coverings for themselves. In their state after the sin, is the wearing of clothes a positive or negative option? Obviously, it is positive. Moral conventions are needed following the sin because they express the ways in which human beings restrain their evil impulses. These ways are not arrived at through pure intellect, but rather through experience, by tradition, etc. Attaining the knowledge of conventions represents a regression, a descent from the level of intellectual insight, but it also serves as a necessary form of engagement with a fallen, defective world.[2]


At the beginning of the chapter the Rambam explains the meaning of the verse, "You will become like God, knowing good and evil." If this knowledge of good and evil is not supreme intellectual insight, then why is it described as a characteristic of God? To this he responds that the word "elohim" is used in Tanakh in many different senses. What it means here is "political leaders." Political leaders need to "distinguish between good and evil" – i.e., they have to know how to use moral conventions, the rules of human morality that are learned through experience, to establish order in their realms. From the Rambam's discussion here we learn about the important role of political leadership in the fallen world that is our reality following the sin. We shall address this at greater length further on.


d.            Who Tempted Man?


Later in the Guide, the Rambam offers us a key to an even more profound understanding of the story of the primordial sin. In Book II, chapter 30, he alludes to the notion that the stories of the creation of man have an allegorical meaning; they not only relate certain historical facts, but also hint at eternal truths about the human race, its character, and its destiny. I quote here his somewhat obscure passage, which requires patient reading in order to decode the allusive meaning:


You must know that the words of the Sages, which I am about to quote, are most perfect, most accurate, and clear to those for whom they were said. I will therefore not add long explanations, lest I make their statements plain, and I might thus become "a revealer of secrets" (Mishlei 11:13), but I will give them in a certain order, accompanied with a few remarks, which will suffice for readers like you.


One of these utterances is this: “Adam and Chava were at first created as one being, joined back to back; they were then separated, and one half was removed and brought before Adam as Chava.” … Note also how clearly it has been stated that Adam and Chava were two in some respects, and yet they remained one, according to the words, 'Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh' (Bereishit 2:23). The unity of the two is proved by the fact that both have the same name, for she is calledisha(woman), because she was taken fromish(man), as well as by the words, “And he shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (2:24). How great is the ignorance of those who do not see that all this necessarily includes some [other] idea [besides the literal meaning of the words]. This is now clear.


Another noteworthy midrashic remark of our Sages is the following: “The serpent had a rider, being as big as a camel, and it was the rider that enticed Chava: this rider was Sama’el.” Sama’el is the name generally applied by our Sages to Satan…. This shows that Sama’el and Satan are identical. There is a meaning in this name [Sama’el], as there is also in the name nachash (serpent).  In describing how the serpent came to entice Chava, our Sages say: “Sama’el was riding on it, and God was laughing at both the camel and its rider.”


It is especially of importance to note that the serpent did not approach or address Adam; rather, all his attempts were directed against Chava, and it was through her that the serpent caused injury and death to Adam. The greatest hatred exists between the serpent and Chava, and between his seed and her seed; her seed being undoubtedly also the seed of man. More remarkable still is the way in which the serpent is joined to Chava, or rather his seed to her seed; the head of the one touches the heel of the other. Eve defeats the serpent by crushing its head, whilst the serpent defeats her by wounding her heel. This is likewise clear.


The following is also a remarkable passage, most absurd in its literal sense; but as an allegory it contains wonderful wisdom, and fully agrees with real facts, as will be found by those who understand all the chapters of this treatise: “When the serpent came to Chava he infected her with poison. The Israelites, who stood at Mount Sinai, removed that poison; idolaters, who did not stand at Mount Sinai, have not removed it" (Shabbat 146a). Consider this too. (Guide II:30)


The Rambam provides only allusions to the depth of meaning of the text. As we have already seen, he prefers not to write openly of the hidden secrets of the Torah but merely to provide hints. From his words, the commentators derive a number of lessons.


First, Adam represents "form," i.e., the human essence – intellect; while Chava represents matter.[3] We now understand the message of the story of Chava tempting Adam to taste of the forbidden fruit: man's matter is what tempts him to sin.


The Rambam also mentions the midrash which teaches that "the serpent had a rider, being as big as a camel, and it was the rider that enticed Chava; this rider was Sama’el." The commentators explain that the serpent is the power of imagination, while Sama’el is desire (there are also opinions that maintain the opposite). The Rambam teaches that the names "Sama’el" and "nachash" have meaning, i.e., they are symbolic names, alluding to the content that they represent. The commentators explain that the name "Sama’el" hints to the fact that desire blinds the intellect (le-samei – to blind), while the name "nachash" alludes to the diviners (menachashim) and magicians, who make corrupt use of the power of imagination.


According to this interpretation, the Rambam is teaching us that desire and imagination are the inner forces which lead a person to sin. The Rambam's attitude towards the power of imagination is a complicated and interesting one; we shall address it later on. Here we need only note that in his view, the imagination endangers the clear thinking of the intellect. When the imagination is joined by desires, it endangers man's mental and psychological health. According to this interpretation, the account of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden is not an ancient fable, but rather a trenchant message concerning the temptations with which every person struggles during the course of his or her life. The story is an eternal metaphor for the struggle of the intellect to maintain a pure way of life, in the face of the temptations thrown at it by desires and imagination.


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]According to the Rambam's formulation, the resemblance between human perception and divine perception can be described only in negative terms: both human and divine intellect are able to exercise intellectual activity without using sensory information.

[2] The Rambam goes so far as to say that eight of the Ten Commandments fall under this category, rather than that of a priori intellectual knowledge (Guide II:33). This clearly indicates that the conventions represent a vital and beneficial need in our fallen world. Prof. David Henschke emphasized that even the command "You shall not murder" belongs to the empirical category, according to the Rambam, because it emerges from the human desire to live and survive, and this will is related not to "necessary truth" or insight, but rather to human traits (D. Henschke, "Li-She'elat Achdut Haguto shel ha-Rambam,” Da'at 37, 5755, p. 49, n. 42).

[3]Cf. Rambam's teaching in an earlier chapter: "Plato and his predecessors used to refer to matter as 'female,' and to form as 'male'" (Guide I:17).