Friday, September 30, 2022

The forbidden fruit in Gan Eden is typically depicted as an apple in modern Western art and in millions of cartoons. But where does this belief come from? Exactly what was eaten is not mentioned in the story, other than that it was a pri from an etz.

Before I get to the origin of the apple idea, I will mention the various opinions in the Talmud (at Brachot 40a and Sanhedrin 70a-b). One view is gefen (grapes) (even though grapes grow on vines, not trees). Another view is te’enah (figs). Another (very surprising) view is chitah (wheat). The first is based on the idea that grapes/wine often lead to trouble, and the story of Noach is cited as an example. The second is based on the idea that figs were what Adam and Eve covered themselves with after the sin (2:7). The third is based on the idea that bread/wheat is such a fundamental food that no one can have da’at without it. Bereishit Rabbah 15:7 records the above views and mentions an additional view, that the fruit was an etrog. Bereshit Rabbah also includes the interesting idea that God purposely did not name the fruit so as to avoid it being defamed for posterity!

I must also mention the Targum to Shir HaShirim 7:9. The verse itself includes the phrase ve-reiach apeich ka-tapuchim. The Targum adds that the reference is to the tapuchim in Gan Eden. Is this an allusion in the Targum to Eve having eaten a tapuach? It does not appear to be. It seems to be merely a claim that there were tapuchim in Gan Eden. (Rabbeinu Tam’s version of the Targum here read etroga, not tapuchim! See Tosfot, Shabbat 88a.)

Getting back to our original question, even though the forbidden fruit is not named in the Biblical story, eventually it was understood to be an apple in most of the Christian world. There are carved depictions of Adam and Eve with apples at medieval Christian burial sites (catacombs and sarcophagi) and paintings of Adam and Eve with apples in medieval Christian paintings.

A few explanations for the identification of the fruit as an apple have been suggested. One suggestion is that the apple was chosen because of a medieval belief in its romantic or aphrodisiacal qualities. Another suggestion is that the apple was chosen because the words for “apple” and “evil” are identical in Latin. The word for both is “malum.” (This is just coincidence. The two words have a different origin and are pronounced slightly differently.) Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple represents “original sin,” so “malum” would seem to be an appropriate choice for the fruit involved. But although “malum” at the time often meant the fruit that we call today an “apple,” it could have meant other fruits as well. Thus there seems to have been another factor at work that motivated the apple identification. As we will see shortly, the other factor may have been Greek mythology.

The church father Jerome translated the Bible into Latin around the year 400 C.E. His translation, known as the Vulgate, was a very influential one. When the Gan Eden story in Genesis used the word pri, Jerome used the word fructus. But when the story referred to the etz ha-daat tov ve-ra (the tree of knowledge of good and bad), Jerome used the phrase bonum et malum for tov ve-ra. So here we have an explicit source that used the word malum in the Gan Eden story, even though it was not used for the fruit itself, but as a translation of ra. But as stated earlier, the word “malum” was used for other fruits as well. (The Latin malum with the fruit-related meaning is related to the Greek word “melon.” At the time, “melon” was a generic term in Greek for a fruit.)

Many have suggested that the Christian interpretation of the forbidden fruit as an apple was influenced by a story found in Greek mythology. In this story, a golden apple inscribed “for the most beautiful one” was thrown toward three Greek goddesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) by another Greek goddess, Eris. It was purposely thrown to cause a quarrel among the recipient goddesses, as Eris knew they would argue about who was the appropriate recipient. (Eris was known as the goddess of discord!) This quarrel set off a chain of events that led to a most tragic war in Greek history: The Trojan War! Many Christians would have known this Greek story. Since the troublesome fruit was an apple there, this may have led to the identification of the troublesome fruit in Gan Eden as an apple as well.

(A side point: Eris started this whole quarrel because she was angry that she had not been invited to a feast; the Trojan War was the result. This is reminiscent of our own Kamtza and Bar Kamtza story!)


On the subject of apples, the tapuach is only mentioned six times in Tanach: four times in Shir HaShirim, once in Yoel and once in Mishlei. Because of the few references and their vagueness, no one can possibly know if the Biblical tapuach was a type of apple. Of course, if you add in the references to tapuach in early rabbinic literature, e.g. Mishnah, Tosefta, Talmuds and early Midrashim, these provide more clues. The Encyclopedia Judaica (entry “Apple”) takes the position that if one looks at all the characteristics of the tapuach mentioned in early rabbinic literature, the Biblical tapuach must be the crabapple. But many would disagree and reject any connection to the apple species. For example, the Talmud at 116a implies that the tapuach is an acidic or acrid fruit. This does not match the apple species. Based on this, Rav Soloveitchik claims that the Biblical tapuach refers to a citrus fruit, and not an apple. Following this view, some use a citrus fruit, and not an apple, for their charoset. Long ago, Rabbeinu Tam interpreted the tapuach of the Bible to be an etrog. See Tosfot, Shabbat 88a.


Going back to Adam and Eve, beginning in the 12th century, Christian art in France and Germany depicted them with an apple. But Byzantine and Italian artists used the fig. In the period of the Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer, painting in Germany, used the apple in 1504 and 1507. But Michelangelo, in Italy in the same period, used figs. (See his work in the Sistine Chapel.) In the 17th century, in “Paradise Lost,” John Milton described the forbidden fruit as an apple. This seems to have finally determined the issue for Western society. On the other hand, Islamic tradition (according to the unreliable material I have read online) represents the forbidden fruit as either wheat, a fig or an olive. (There is no description of the fruit in the Quran itself, only in the commentaries.)

I conclude by pointing out that the English word “apple” was a generic word for fruit as late as the 17th century. (I have seen it suggested that even Milton did not mean our “apple” but was using the word generically.) This explains, for example, why the pineapple has a name with the suffix “apple,” even though it is an entirely different fruit from what we call an apple today.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” (Kodesh Press, 2015). Although he enjoys eating apples, he enjoys solving Biblical mysteries even more. He would like to thank Alan Zelenetz for his assistance with this article.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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