The Tree of Knowledge

Introduction

A Puzzling Prohibition

Man receives his first prohibition midway through the second chapter of Sefer Bereshit:

EN/HEע/E
(טז) וַיְצַו י"י אֱ-לֹהִים עַל הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל.  (יז) וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכׇלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת.
(16) And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: 'Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; (17) but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.'

On one hand, the directive is quite simple: Adam is prohibited from eating from a certain tree, and he is warned that doing so will bring about his death. Yet, this short command hides more than it reveals and has perplexed readers throughout the centuries: 

  • "עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע" – What is the nature of the knowledge granted by this "עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע" ("Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad)"?  What do the terms "טוֹב וָרָע" mean?
  • Is knowledge negative? – Why did Hashem prohibit humans from attaining this knowledge?  Is not intellectual growth a positive development?  Or, as Rambam poses the question: Is it possible that human intellect, the perfection of mankind, came about only due to sin?
  • Man's knowledge prior to the sin – What was man's intellectual state before eating from the Tree? If he was not able to distinguish good from bad, and had no faculties of perception, how could he have been expected to abide by Hashem's command?  Moreover, how could he be held accountable when he transgressed?
  • The ideal – What does the prohibition suggest about Hashem's original plan for mankind and what He considered man's idyllic state?
  • Why make the Tree? A final question relates to the very existence of the Tree.  If Hashem did not want man to eat from it, why did He create it in the first place?

Life and Death

Alongside the עֵץ הַדַּעַת (Tree of Knowledge), a second special tree was found in the garden, the עֵץ הַחַיִּים (Tree of Life).  What does this name connote?  Did this tree grant immortality, rejuvenate a person, or cure illness?  How did the two trees relate to each other?  Man was told that eating from the former would lead to death, while eating from the latter, presumably, extended life.  At the beginning of the narrative, only the former is explicitly prohibited, yet after the sin, Hashem banishes Adam from Gan Eden, "lest he take also from the Tree of Life".  Does this suggest that it, too, had originally been off-limits and God was fearful that man would once again be disobedient? Or, was the Tree initially permitted and only banned as a consequence of sin? If so, was man originally meant to live forever?  Was part of his punishment that this was no longer to be the case, or did Hashem have a different motive in guarding the way to the Tree of Life?

Measure for Measure Punishment?

In Bereshit 3:14-19, each of the participants in the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is directly punished by God.  The snake is cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust, and is also told that enmity will endure between him and mankind. Chavvah is punished that she is to bear children in much pain and sorrow and that she is to be ruled by her husband.  Finally, Adam is informed that the land is to be cursed before him and that until his death he will need to produce food through the sweat of his brow. How does each punishment fit the crime?  Are they measure for measure responses to the specific deeds of each individual?  If so, what light might the various punishments shed on the nature of the sin? Finally, is it possible that the curses given to Adam and Chavvah are not punishments at all, but merely the natural consequences of eating from the Tree?

Additional Questions

The story raises several other questions which directly relate to the points above:
  • "בְּיוֹם אֲכׇלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת" – Adam is told that on the day he eats from the tree he will die, yet Adam lives for centuries after the sin. How can this be explained?  In addition, how does this declaration relate to Adam's later punishment that he is eventually to return to dust: "כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב"?
  • "וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע" – The snake tells Chavvah that, upon eating from the Tree, she will "become like God". Hashem Himself similarly declares, "הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע". These statements suggest that the knowledge granted by the Tree somehow made man godlike. If so, the questions raised above are strengthened; why prevent man from attaining a godly trait?
  • "וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם" – The first knowledge of which Adam and Chavvah gain awareness is their nakedness.  This is not the only reference to nakedness in the story; in fact, a focus is trained on it throughout the unit (see 2:25, 3:7, 3:10, 3:11, and 3:22).  What does this suggest regarding the knowledge attained by eating from the Tree?  Why is this element so central to the narrative?
  • "וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ חַוָּה" – While in 2:23, Adam names his spouse "אִשָּׁה" (lit. woman), towards the end of Chapter 3, Adam renames her "Chavvah".  Why is she renamed specifically at this point?  What is the significance of the new name?  How, if at all, does it relate to the sin?
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