The idea that Adam and Eve consumed an apple in the Garden of Eden is well entrenched in Western culture. Renaissance painters such as Titian (16th century) and Rubens (17th century) painted scenes depicting Eve and the apple. The poet John Milton referred to the forbidden fruit as an apple in his book, Paradise Lost (1667). In our time, the city of Windsor, Canada displays an “Eve’s Apple” sculpture in Assumption Park.
But did Eve really eat an apple? The Bible is silent about the choice of forbidden fruit—but an apple is not likely.
The Biblical Story
We know from Genesis that the Garden of Eden contains all kinds of trees that are “alluring to the eye and good to eat” (2:9). “Of every tree in the garden you are free to eat,” God told Adam, “but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad/evil [ra, in Hebrew], you must not eat; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall be doomed to die” (2:16–17).
Later in the text, after Eve is created from Adam’s rib, the two of them are unclothed in the garden and unashamed of their nakedness. A serpent comes along and asks Eve: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” She replies knowingly: “Of any tree in the garden we may eat of the fruit; but God said, ‘Of the fruit of the tree in the middle of it do not eat, and do not [even] touch it, or you will die’” (Gen. 3:2–3). The serpent assures Eve that she will not die, and, because she is drawn to the tree’s alluring fruit, she takes a bite and gives some to Adam. After eating from the tree of knowledge of good and bad/evil, their eyes are opened and they realize they are naked. To cover themselves, they make loincloths by sewing together leaves of the fig tree (Gen. 3:7).
The Apple Theory
How did the apple, which is not indigenous to ancient Israel, come to be associated with the Garden of Eden? According to many biblical scholars, the mistake comes from a faulty translation.
In modern Hebrew, an apple is called a tapuach. In the Bible, however, this word refers to a tree with a scented fruit, maybe an apricot or a quince. Thus, when the Bible says, “Under the tapuach I roused you” (Song of Songs 8:5), a correct translation would be, “Under a tree with a scented fruit, I roused you.” Yet in most English Bible translations we find, “Under the apple tree I roused you.”
The confusion comes from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible created in the 4th century C.E. In translating “The tree of knowledge of good and ra,” “ra ” was rendered as “malum,” which means both “bad (or evil)” and “apple.” Malum also appears in the Vulgate’s translation of Song of Songs 8:5: Sub arbore malo… (literally, “under the malum tree…).
The translators of the Vulgate may have been influenced by the well-known Greek myth in which Eris, the goddess of discord or of bad/evil acts, hurls a golden apple into the assembly of the gods because they did not invite her to their gathering. In time, popular imagination took over, and references to malum in many Bible translations were mistakenly rendered as “apple.”
The Rabbis Disagree
The ancient rabbis (circa 5th–6th centuries) speculated about the identity of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, without consensus:
Rabbi Meir said: It was wheat…
Rabbi Yehudah ben Rabbi Ilai and
Rabbi Aibu said: It was grapes…
Rabbi Abba of Acco said: It was
the etrog (citron)…
Rabbi Yosei said: They were figs…
(Midrash B’reishit Rabbah chapters 15 and 19)
In the Talmud, Rabbi Nechemia asserted that “it was the fig tree, so that they repaired their misdeed with the instrument of it, as it says, ‘And they sewed fig leaves together’” (Ber. 40A).
The rabbis considered wheat, because the Hebrew word for wheat, chitah, was seen as related to chet, meaning “sin”; the grape, because its abuse leads one to forget one’s senses; the etrog, because the word was seen as deriving from ragag, “to desire”; and the fig, because it is specifically mentioned in Genesis 3:7 (“Gleanings” from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, URJ Press).
The Most Likely Fruit
Rabbis Yosei and Nechemiah’s choice of figs seems the most plausible for several reasons:
1. Timing: As soon as Adam and Eve realize they are naked, they cover themselves with leaves from the nearest tree—and fig leaves, being large and durable, were a perfect choice for making loincloths.
2. Biblical Mention: No other fruit tree is mentioned by name in the Garden of Eden. Figs, cultivated in ancient Israel, are also referenced throughout the Bible. They are counted among the seven special species (along with wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and honey) which made Israel “a good land” (Deut. 8:7).
3. Symbolism: In biblical tradition, fig trees are associated with peace and tranquility. The prophet Micah envisions an ideal future as a place where:
…they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not take up
Sword against nation;
They shall never again know war;
But every man shall sit
Under his grapevine or fig tree
With no one to disturb him
In rabbinic literature, the Garden of Eden is the ultimate resting place for the righteous in the afterlife. Adam and Eve lived in such a paradise before they ate the forbidden fruit.
4. Jewish legend: According to Jewish legend, as Adam seeks leaves to cover his nakedness, he hears one tree after the other say: “‘There is the thief that deceived his Creator. Nay, the foot of pride shall not come against me, nor the hand of the wicked touch me….’ Only the fig-tree granted him permission to take of its leaves. That was because the fig was the forbidden fruit” (Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Bible, p.40).
In short, the fig played a leading role in our ancestors’ imagination long before the apple made its debut on the stage of Jewish history.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D, is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, Massachusetts and a faculty member of Boston College’s Theology Department. This article has been adapted with permission from Did Moses Really Have Horns? And Other Myths About Jews and Judaism (URJ Books and Music). His latest book, And God Spoke These Words: The Ten Commandments and Contemporary Ethics, is being published this November by URJ Books and Music.