Celebrating Jewish Literature: The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Hebrew word used in the Bible for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, which was found in the Garden of Eden, is peri, a generic word meaning any kind of fruit. Yet, when most people think of the story, they visualize that fruit as an apple. As Azzan Yadin-Israel notes in “Temptation Transformed: The Story of How the Forbidden Fruit Become an Apple” (The University of Chicago Press), that was a relatively new development since there was little to no mention of the apple in this context before the 12th century. In his short work, Yadin-Israel, a professor of Jewish studies and classics at Rutgers University, uses written texts and visual imagery to determine when and why that change occurred. 

Ancient written commentaries do not agree on any specific type of fruit: among those suggested are grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat shafts and dates. Although a few texts mention apples, these were very limited. There were also commentaries that suggested the fruit was an unknown type only found in the Garden of Eden. As for pictorial images from that time period, the fruits that usually appeared were figs, pomegranates or grapes. Other images just show an unidentifiable fruit that doesn’t have the characteristic of any specific plant. 

Yadin-Israel believes the apple tradition began in 12th century France and then moved to other areas, including Germany, England and Northern Italy. He suggests the shift occurred for linguistic reasons. His discussion is based on the fact that the original Latin word to describe the forbidden fruit was pom (singular) or pomum (plural). To oversimplify his very detailed explanation, when biblical works appeared in Old French, the meaning of the Latin word pom was narrowed to mean not all fruits, but only apple. Yadin-Israel writes, “What is clear is that once ‘apple’ became the dominant sense of pom, the various Old French accounts of the Fall of Man communicated a clear and simple lesson: Adam and Eve were tempted by an apple.”

It was during this time that paintings of the Garden of Eden began to more consistently use the apple to represent the forbidden fruit. As Yadin-Israel notes, “[Artists] knew Scripture from vernacular sources: sermons, plans, and for the literate, vernacular Bible translations and adaptations. Consequently, Old French-speaking artists adopted the apple while contemporary Latin commentators did not.” For those who read and understood Latin, there was another word – malum – that meant apple, while pom remained a generic word for fruit in general. 

Yadin-Israel notes that French painting and culture greatly influenced the change in English and German references to the forbidden fruit, although this did not take place overnight. Spanish commentators and painters did not make the same change because vernacular translations of the biblical text were discouraged. That meant that Spanish commentaries were written in Latin and used the word pom as referring to fruits in general. There were similar linguistic reasons for why Northern Italy adopted the apple as the forbidden fruit, while Southern Italy did not, often portraying the forbidden fruit as a fig. Later, illustrated books pictured the forbidden fruit as an apple, which helped the idea become more firmly established in people’s minds.

“Temptation Transformed” is a beautifully designed work: it offers black-and-white photos and color plates to show the different images of the forbidden fruit that have appeared over the centuries. Yadin-Israel does an excellent job analyzing the different texts he discusses. While his subject matter may seem to have a narrow focus, his sources are not: he offers an interdisciplinary and wide-eyed view of the topic – using Jewish and Christian written and visual sources. Anyone interested in how cultural and linguistic changes can influence our interpretations of the biblical text will find “Temptation Transformed” to be of great interest.