The Tree of Knowledge

  • Rav Chaim Navon

Theological Issues In Sefer Bereishit

Yeshivat Har Etzion



By Rav Chaim Navon

How significant a factor in our consciousness is Adam's sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge? According to Christianity, Adam's "original sin" in the Garden of Eden turned all of mankind into sinners who are guilty from birth. In Judaism, however, man's first sin plays a far less central role.

Moses Mendelssohn briefly summarized Judaism's position on this issue:

Straightforward reason knows nothing about the legacy of original sin. Nor does the Old Testament have any knowledge about it. Adam sinned and died, and his descendants sin and die. But his sin did not cause them to die to goodness [1], nor to fall into the hands of Satan. (Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch repeats this idea:

What a disconsolate lie, undermining the whole moral future of mankind, has been forged out of this history. The dogma of original sin has been founded on it, a dogma, upon which a whole structure has been built, against which if anything, the whole being of a Jew has to raise the most emphatic protest... But that, because of this, Man has become "sinful", has forfeited the ability to be good, must sin ... against that belief Judaism raises the most vehement protest. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary to Bereishit 3:19)

Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden is much less significant in Judaism than in Christianity.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook emphasizes the spiritual significance of the very telling of the story of the sin, without referring to any of the particulars. His conclusion is the antithesis of that of Christianity:

It matters not to us whether there truly existed in the real world a golden age, during which man delighted in an abundance of physical and spiritual good, or whether the actual world started at the bottom and went up, from the lowest level of existence to the highest, and thus it continues to ascend. All we have to know is that it is entirely possible for a person, even if he has risen to great rank and is ready for all honors, if he corrupts his ways, to lose everything, harming himself and his descendants for very many generations. This we learn from the fact of Adam's existence in the Garden of Eden, his sin, and his expulsion...

This is just the antithesis of what the scholars among the gentiles, as well as those Jews who follow in their footsteps, think. Their reading of the Bible follows the Christian interpretation, through which this world becomes a prison. The pure understanding, however, of the joy and light of life that is in the Torah, is based precisely on the sure guarantee of the past, when man was very happy, it being merely an instance of sin that distanced himself from his path. Clearly, a chance stumbling must be correctable, so that man will return to his high rank forever. The idea of development without the help of the past is always frightening, lest a person halt in the middle of his path, or even withdraw, because we do not find certain grounds to say that happiness is part of man's fixed nature. And all the more so for material man in the state he is in, body and soul together. For this reason, it is only man's existence in the Garden of Eden that preserves for us the world of light. Thus, it is fitting to be practical and historical truth as well, even though this is not indispensable. (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Iggerot ha-Ra’aya, I, pp. 163-164)

Rabbi Kook argues that the account of Adam's sin gives rise not to pessimism, but to optimism: from this story we learn that at the outset of human history, man was of high rank and happy. And from this it follows that we have the ability to correct the sin and return to our original eminence.

In any event, even if we reject the Christian approach, we must consider the multiple aspects of the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, so that we may appreciate its moral lessons.


The rest of this lecture will deal with the following question: What was the Tree of Knowledge and what was Adam's sin? We are clearly dealing here with a symbolic event with profound messages; but the Jewish Sages disagree about the nature of these messages. What was the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge? What exactly was the Tree of Knowledge? What are the eternal lessons that may be learned from this story?


One of the simplest explanations is that of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra:

The "Tree of Knowledge" gave rise to sexual desire, and it is for this reason that the man and his wife covered their private parts... When Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, he "knew his wife," this knowledge being a euphemism for sexual relations. This is called ["knowing"] on account of the Tree of Knowledge. When a youth "knows good and evil," then his sexual desire begins. (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, commentary to Bereishit 3:6)


The idea proposed by Ibn Ezra is further developed by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

For as long as man and women were both one body, having the same spirit, serving the One God, as long as with body and soul they come up to the ideal of Man being in the likeness of God, for so long was their body pure and holy like their soul, spiritual and sensual, body and soul, both given by God for the fulfillment of their human mission... The pure human soul, the moral life of the senses, are no whit less holy than the soul, the spiritual life... But as soon as man hands over the reins to his sensuousness, does not exercise moral energy to raise his sensual life up into the realm of godliness, but on the contrary, by his sensuality his godliness itself gets dragged down into the unfree state of the senses, then at once he has to be ashamed of his nakedness. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Commentary to Bereishit 2:25)

Rabbi Hirsch understands that man was a sensual being from his very creation. But as long as he exercised control over his bodily passions, he had no reason to feel shame. When he sinned by eating of the Tree of Knowledge, man became enslaved to his sensuousness. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the tree did not have any special desire-arousing properties. But since the tree had been forbidden to man by divine decree, eating from it was a sin.


Benno Jacob emphasizes this point:

The tree distinguished between good and evil, between the permitted and the forbidden, between life and death, independent of the specific content of the command. On the contrary, the man's test was to see whether he would be influenced by practical considerations regarding the utility of the command, whether he would direct his will solely to obey the Commander. The man was given the command so that he should not think that he is God, but rather he should know that he has a Master and Commander. The fruit of the tree was not harmful, nor did it contain deathly poison. On the contrary, it was good to eat. (Benno Jacob, cited by Nechama Leibowitz, Iyyunim Chadashim be-Sefer Bereishit, p. 20)

Benno Jacob, who had Reform inclinations, offers an explanation that is strikingly "mitnaged." He emphasizes obedience to God's will and views the actual content of the mitzva as arbitrary.

abandonment of intellectual apprehension

Rambam proposes a different approach:

Years ago a learned man propounded as a challenge to me a curious objection... This is what the objector said: It is manifest from the clear sense of the biblical text that the primary purpose with regard to man was that he should be, as the other animals are, devoid of intellect, of thought, and of the capacity to distinguish between good and evil. However, when he disobeyed, his disobedience procured him as its necessary consequence the great perfection peculiar to man... Now it is a thing to be wondered at that man’s punishment for his disobedience should consist in his being granted a perfethat he did not possess before, namely, the intellect...

[The answer:] For the intellect that God made overflow unto man and that is the latter’s ultimate perfection, was that which Adam had been provided with before he disobeyed. It was because of this that it was said of him that he was created in the image of God and in His likeness. It was likewise on account of it that he was addressed by God and given commandments, as it says: "And the Lord God commanded, and so on" (Bereishit 2:16). For commandments are not given to beasts and beings devoid of intellect. Through the intellect one distinguishes between truth and falsehood, and that was found in Adam in its perfection and integrity. Fine and bad, on the other hand, belong to the things generally accepted as known, not to those cognized by the intellect. For one does not say: it is fine that heaven is spherical, and it is bad that the earth is flat; rather one says true and false with regard to these assertions... However, when he disobeyed and inclined toward his desires of the imagination and the pleasures of his corporeal senses, inasmuch as it is said: "That the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes" (Bereishit 3:6), he was punished by being deprived of that intellectual apprehension. He therefore disobeyed the commandment that was imposed upon him on account of his intellect and, becoming endowed with the faculty of apprehending generally accepted things, he became absorbed in judging things to be bad or fine.

(Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed, I, 2)

Rambam distinguishes here between "intellectual cognitions" and "things generally accepted as known." Before he sinned, man was able to understand everything with his intellect; he conducted himself in accordance with pure and absolute logic. According to Rambam, man's sin began the moment he inclined towards his desires, seeing the tree as "a delight to the eyes." Then he was deprived of his intellectual cognitions. When man actually sinned and ate from the tree, he passed over to the world of things generally accepted as known, to a world of relative social norms. Rambam understands the words, "And you shall be like elohim" - like judges who rule over states. According to Rambam, as understood by his commentators, the Tree of Knowledge symbolizes the world of pleasure and desire.


Abravanel suggests a different understanding:

The general intent of this great section is to tell us that God created man in His intellectual image... And He also created everything essential for his existence - food, drink, the fruits of the trees of the garden that He had planted, and the waters of its rivers. This was all made available in the natural world, so that there should be no need for effort, toil or human activity. Everything that man needed was ready and available to him at all times, so that he should not trouble his soul to seek out what his body needs, but rather to perfect his soul for which he had been created. For this reason, God commanded man to content himself with the natural things that he had created for his needs, and not to allow himself to be drawn after luxuries which require work... All this notwithstanding, the man of his own free will and choice walked in darkness.... (Abravanel)

Abravanel understands that the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge lies in the fact that it brought about the development of civilization. Abravanel, as is well known, was greatly repelled by civilization, viewing it as corrupt and destructive. In this regard, Abravanel resembles the philosopher Rousseau, who spoke of man as noble by nature, but corrupted by civilization. Abravanel understands that Adam sinned by allowing himself to be drawn after luxuries, requiring him to develop a degenerate civilization.


Ramban takes a totally different approach:

"And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." The commentators have said that the fruit thereof caused those who ate it to have a desire for sexual intercourse, and therefore Adam and Chava covered their nakedness after they ate of it [the fruit]. They quote a similar expression, the saying of Barzilai the Gileadite: "Can I distinguish between good and evil?" (II Shemuel 19:36) - meaning that this sexual desire was already removed from him. But in my opinion this interpretation is not correct since the serpent said, "And you shall be like Elokim, knowing good and evil."[2] And if you say that the serpent lied to her, now, "And the Lord said, Behold man has become like one of us knowing good and evil" (Bereishit 3:22)...

The proper interpretation appears to me to be that man's original nature was such that he did whatever was proper for him to do naturally, just as the heavens and all their hosts do, "faithful workers whose work is truth, and who do not change from their prescribed course," and in whose deeds here is no love or hatred. Now it was the fruit of this tree that gave rise to will and desire, that those who ate it should choose a thing or its opposite, for good or for evil. This is why it was called the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, for "knowledge" in our language is used to express will...

Now at that time sexual intercourse between Adam and his wife was not a matter of desire; instead, at the time of begetting offspring they came together and propagated. Therefore, all the limbs were, in their eyes, as the face and hands, and they were not ashamed of them. But after he ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he possessed the power of choice; he could now willingly do evil or good to himself or to others. This, on the one hand, is a godlike attribute; but as far as man is concerned, it is bad because through it, he has a will and desire. (Ramban, commentary to Bereishit 2:9)

Ramban's words are sensational. According to him, eating from the Tree of Knowledge brought man free will. On one hand, free will is an advantage, for it is one of God's traits and described by the words, "And you shall be like God." Practically speaking, however, it is to man's disadvantage, for it leads man to sins of passion and desire.[3] Many objected to Ramban regarding this point, arguing that free will is a great advantage. This, for example, is what Abravanel says:

As the Sages have said: "'And behold, it is good' - this refers to the good inclination; 'very [good]' - this refers to the evil inclination." They meant to say that all of man's goodness and perfection stems from his ability to choose between good and evil in accordance with his inclination. Were this not so, man would not be man, and God would not have commanded him: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it" (Bereishit 2:16-17). For a commandment only applies to one who has choice and will. (Abravanel)

Another argument may be raised: if, indeed, before he sinned, man lacked free will, how then could he have sinned?

Let us further probe the significance of free will. As we already saw in our lecture on the "image of God," Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, author of Meshekh Chokhma, argues that it is man's free will that constitutes the image of God implanted within him:

The image of God refers to man's ability to choose freely without his nature coercing him, to act out of free will and intellect... This alone we know, that free will results from divine constriction, that God, may He be blessed, leaves room for His creatures to act in the manner of their choosing... He, therefore, said to Himself, "Let us make man in Our image," that is to say, the Torah speaks in the language of men, for He said, "Let us leave room for man to choose, that he not be forced in his actions and obligated in his thoughts, and he have the free will to do good or evil as he desires, and he be able to do things against his nature and against what is regarded as upright in the eyes of God." (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Meshekh Chokhma)

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk views free will as a wonderful gift, the image of God in man. It should be noted that there are those who disagree with this idea. Rabbi Meir Simcha, a man the modern world, understood the great significance of free will. Everything in the natural world is subject to the laws of causality. Every activity, every action, and every movement stem perforce from a prior network of causes. The belief in free will asserts that man is not subject to the law of causality, or at the very least, that he can overcome it. According to our belief, in the very same situation, under the very same circumstances, without anything being changed, man can choose between two different avenues of action. What causes him to choose one and not the other? This is a paradox that is difficult for us to understand, but critical, nevertheless, for our religious belief.

Rambam also explains at great length the significance of free will:

Let not the notion, expressed by foolish gentiles and most of the senseless folk among Israelites, pass through your mind that at the beginning of a person's existence, the Almighty decrees that he is to be either righteous or wicked. This is not so. Every human being may become righteous like Moshe, our teacher, or wicked like Yerav'am; wise or foolish, merciful or cruel; niggardly or generous; and so with all other qualities. There is no one that coerces him or decrees what he is to do, or draws him to either of the two ways; but every person turns to the way which he desires, spontaneously and of his own volition. (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuva 5:1-2)

Rambam describes at length the significance of free will, emphasizing that it is one of the fundamental tenets of our faith. Were it not that man has free will, he would fall into despair and renounce all responsibility for his fate. Rambam's primary objection is to the notion that God determines man's destiny. According to this view, argues Rambam, there is no reason to command or admonish man, nor to promise him reward or punishment; in any event, man has no control over his conduct.

Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, in his book "Or Hashem," argues that free will can be denied from another direction: the causal forces of nature. God does not directly determine every particular event; whatever occurs is automatically determined by the natural causes that govern the world. Today we speak primarily about psychological determination. An individual must act in a certain manner because of his nature or personal history. According to this approach, there is room for Torah and mitzvot, as well as reward and punishment, for they serve as additional psychological factors pushing a person to do good. Still, however, man has no free will. It should be noted that the author of "Meshekh Chokhma" rejects this approach as well. He speaks of divine contraction [tzimtzum], but later adds that man is free to act "against his nature and against what is regarded as upright in the eyes of God." God does not control man - "everything is in the hand of Heaven, except for the fear of Heaven" - but neither does nature.


Let us conclude with the words of Rabbi Mordecai Breuer, who follows the basic approach of Ramban. He too sees in the Tree of Knowledge a mixture of gain and loss, rather than total loss:

Thus, man passed all at once from childhood to adulthood. The slow development that passes over every individual, little by little, fell upon Adam suddenly and all at once. A moment earlier he had been perfect and innocent, pure as a child - and now he is already an adult. Together with all the good in an adult's world, he acquired also all the bad - the splitting and the rift, the shame and the sin. In contrast to the adults in our world, however, it was he who brought all this evil upon himself. It was not part of the natural order of things that he should reach maturity. It was not the way of the world that imposed upon him the spiritual rift between free willed devotion to spiritual knowledge and drunken addiction to physical desire. Rather, it was he, through the exercise of his free will, who brought this all upon himself. (Rabbi Mordecai Breuer, Pirkei Mo'adot I, p. 113)


We may summarize by saying that there are two main currents of thought regarding Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. There are those who view the outcome as advantageous to man, whereas others see it as having been to his detriment. Let us summarize the various opinions cited above according to this division:


Ibn Ezra: Sexual desire.

Rambam: Acquisition of things generally accepted as known rather than those apprehended by the intellect.

Abravanel: Degenerate civilization.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch: Surrender to desire (which existed even prior to the sin).

Benno Jacob: The tree itself had no special properties (the sin consisted of Adam's failure to obey).


Ramban: Free will.

Rabbi Mordecai Breuer: Spiritual maturity.

proofs supporting the view that "knowledge of good and evil was detrimental to man:

1. Immediately following the sin, the verse states: "And they knew that they were naked" (Bereishit 3:7), implying that there is an immediate connection between the sin and sexual desire. Shame appears (i.e., shame of nakedness and the sense of guilt resulting from the sin, because of which the man and the woman hide from God. It should be noted that this new awareness was so deeply implanted in the man, that he failed to realize that by saying, "And I was afraid, because I was naked," he was exposing his new awareness, attesting thereby to his sin).

2. In II Shemuel 19:36, we find a similar formulation, "Can I discern between good and evil," and it is clear from the context that the reference is to physical desire and pleasure.

3. As pointed out by Abravanel, it would be strange for God to withhold a certain advantageous quality from man, and then allow him to attain it only after he sins.


Twice this characteristic is attributed to God Himself: in the words of the serpent ("And you shall be as God, knowing good and evil" [3:5]), and in the words of God ("The man is become like one of us, knowing good and evil" [3:22]). Below, we shall propose a refutation of this compelling proof.


In my opinion, the most reasonable direction is that taken by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, with a few slight changes. Sexual pleasure existed prior to the sin, but there was no sexual impulse, in the sense of a wild, uncontrollable drive. Before he sinned, man ruled over his impulses and inclinations, and allocated to himself practical and emotional time and space for pleasure - but in the appropriate place, time and manner. (It is difficult for us to distinguish between pleasure and impulse, but such a distinction is certainly possible, and even self-evident on the level of principle.) The impulse is what makes man lose control, bringing shame in its wake. Only after the sin - after the impulse came into being - is Adam ashamed of his nakedness. Adam and Chava allowed the impulse to develop within them when they succumbed to the seductions of the serpent. (Thus, we resolve the question - if there was no impulse, how were they seduced? We argue that from the very outset there was pleasure, and that they willingly chose pleasure over the fulfillment of God's command.)

The serpent refers to God by the name Elokim, rather than the Tetragrammaton, which appears in the entire section. When Adam was commanded, he enjoyed the personal revelation of God. The sin lowered him to the natural level of relating to Elokim, the source of all forces, which has no moral meaning or command. The serpent's words, "And you shall be like God," should be understood against the background of the primitive perception of sensuality, which sees God as the pinnacle of power and passion. In other words, we are not dealing here with a true description of God, but with a false description uttered by the serpent (= the evil impulse). The true problem is how to understand the words of God Himself: "The man is become like one of us, knowing good and evil." Unless we are ready to chop the verse into pieces, as was done by Onkelos and other commentators, we must explain that God is employing irony, in accordance with man's intentions and poor : According to man, he has now become like one of us. Ibn Ezra alludes to this interpretation, and Abravanel adopts it. This interpretation is problematic, but there seems to be no alternative.

The punishment for sin is estrangement. When the impulse came into being, each person began to see the other as an object for the satisfaction of his own desires and passions, rather than as a partner and mate. This estrangement finds expression first and foremost in death, for prior to his sin, man was not destined to die (hence, it was only after the sin that God was concerned that Adam would eat of the Tree of Life): death is man's estrangement from the world (and within man himself, the estrangement of his spiritual side from his material side; it is difficult to ignore God's belittling tone when He said: "For you are dust, and to dust shall you return" [3:19]: you have proven that your element of dust has overcome your spiritual side). There are additional levels of alienation: 1) Between man and nature - "In sorrow you shall eat." 2) Between man and the animal kingdom - "I will put enmity." 3) Between man and man, and especially between man and his wife - "And he shall rule over you" (as a result of "And yet your desire shall be to your husband"). The insertion of desire into the relationship between the man and the woman resulted in a hierarchy and in domination. Their relationship was henceforth based on mutual exploitation. Before the sin, the man called his wife "Isha" - as a sign of the partnership and equality that she shared with her husband. After the sin, she is "Chava" - mother of all living - a functional role (we shall devote one of the coming lectures to this issue). This element of estrangement also finds expression in Adam's hasty placing of the blame for his sin on his wife.


[1] I.e., they did not lose their connection to good.

[2] In other words, the knowledge of good and evil cannot be a material trait, for the serpent attributes it to God Himself.

[3] In his commentary to Parashat Nitzavim, Ramban goes as far as to say that in the Messianic period we will once again be like the first man, stripped of free will.

(Translated by Rav David Strauss)