Why the forbidden fruit in Genesis is probably not the apple

Wikimedia CommonsAdam and Eve by Jacob Jordaens

After the celebrations of Simchat Torah and the reading of Deuteronomy where Moses gives up the mantle to Joshua to lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land, we start again with the story of Genesis, culminating in the creation of Adam on the 6th day (when G-d was rushing to get his work finished before Shabbat started on the 7th day).

By the way, 'rest' didn't just happen: 'rest' was there before creation and G-d activated it at just the right time, but that is another story.

And, just to confuse you further, Genesis is not a scientific account of how creation works in the modern sense, but simply a statement that it happened!

One of the most famous Adam and Eve stories is the one about eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

However, which fruit was it? In Christianity (and therefore in general society) the fruit was deemed to be an apple. So I asked Dr Rowan Williams why this should be the case, and this was his response:

'As far as I know, the apple identification is relatively late, and it's normally regarded as bound up with the malum pun; it couldn't therefore have been earlier than the fourth/fifth century when the Latin Bible was standardised, and I suspect that it must be a good deal later — from an era when the different lengths of vowel in malum / apple (long a) and malum / evil (short a) had been forgotten as Latin wasn't widely spoken. We have other examples of confusion over words because different vowel lengths were no longer observed. What may have started as a sort of scholarly joke could then become taken as fact. Greek Christians seem to have gone for the fig as the forbidden fruit, as this is what tends to appear in Byzantine art. No visual representation as an apple before the early Western Middle Ages. But no hint in the literature of the rabbinic debates either.'

So it appears that people confused the word malum which means 'evil' with the word malum, pronounced differently, which means 'apple' and somehow conflated the two different meanings in the vernacular.

However, what is particularly interesting is the Byzantine Greek Christian tradition (alive and kicking in the State of Israel) holds that the forbidden food was actually a fig.

In Jewish tradition, four different alternatives are suggested, none of them the poor maligned apple.

These are:

1) The fig, hence the term 'fig-leaf'

2) Wheat, which was originally supposed to grow on trees, but after the sin was condemned to grow in the ground

3) The vine, which intoxicates

4) The Etrog

The Etrog is the citrus fruit which is shaken together with the Lulav at Succot. A great deal of trouble is taken to obtain the right sort of Etrog for this festival. It is regarded as beautiful and good in every way and therefore incredibly desirable.

One reason why special blessings are said over the wine and the bread at meal-time (and not simply generic benedictions as in other cases) is in order to atone for the possibility that the fruit in question was the vine or wheat.

So which is it: the fig, wheat, the vine or the Etrog?

The Etrog seems to be the most obvious choice. It is beautiful in every way: it links to the Succot and in Aramaic the word 'etrog' means 'desire'.

Which also teaches us something about language. Just as 'malum' the fruit may also be 'malum' evil, so 'etrog' the fruit may also be 'etrog' the desire.

In any case, desire is not intrinsically evil in Judaism. Desire is necessary for the building up of life in all its facets – but that is probably another article.

Happy eating!

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.