The Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge

Bereshit 3

An Interactive Learning Module by Rivka Kahan

Garden of Eden / Jan Brueghel the Younger

1. Introduction

  • The very first story about humanity revolves around the sin of eating from "עץ הדעת טוב ורע", the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
  • This module will explore the nature of the knowledge that was acquired by eating from the tree and how the sin transformed human nature.
  • An in depth analysis of this issue can be found at The Tree of Knowledge. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. The Verses

  • Let’s begin by examining the verses that describe the tree and its fruit by clicking to read them in the Mikraot Gedolot: a) Bereshit 2:16-17; b) Bereshit 3:6-7; c) Bereshit 3:22
  • What information do these verses provide about the tree and the type of knowledge that its fruit imparted?
  • Does it seem to you that the knowledge imparted by the fruit was positive or negative?
  • What questions are raised by these verses about the nature of "ידיעת טוב ורע" and why it was forbidden?

3. Meanings of "ידע" and "דעת"

  • Let’s now examine the meaning of the word "דעת" as it is used throughout Tanakh.
  • Return to Bereshit 2:17 and click on the word "הַדַּעַת" in verse 17 to access the One Click Concordance.
  • Scan the first 15 sources that appear. What are the connotations of this word in Tanakh?
  • Now, under the heading ערכים קשורים (Related Entries) on the right side of the concordance, click on ידע and scan the first five sources that appear.
  • What additional connotation is found in these sources?

4. Summary of Findings

  • Our concordance search has shown that the word "דעת" and the root "ידע" have various meanings in Tanakh:
  • Skilled knowledge (for example, Shemot 31:3 and Melakhim I 7:14)
  • Knowledge of God (for example, Bemidbar 24:16 and Yeshayahu 33:6)
  • Intent (for example, Devarim 4:42 and Yehoshua 20:3)
  • Sexual knowledge (for example, Bereshit 4:1)
  • Which one or more of these meanings best fit(s) the context of Bereshit 3?

5. Meanings of "ידיעת טוב ורע"

  • Now let’s explore the meaning of the phrase "ידיעת טוב ורע".
  • Switch to the advanced mode of the concordance by toggling the button in the top right corner from "basic" to "advanced".
  • In the first field, input: ידע, choosing the verb from the dropdown menu. In the second field, input טוב, choosing the adjective form, and in the third field, input: רע, again choosing the adjective form.
  • What are the connotations of the phrase "ידיעת טוב ורע" in Devarim 1:39 and Shemuel II:19:36? Which meaning of "דעת" is implied by each?
  • How does the tension between the understandings of "דעת" as Godly (or moral) knowledge and "דעת" as sexual knowledge in these verses parallel the different implications of "ידיעת טוב ורע" that emerge from Bereshit Chapters 2-3? Which verses in Bereshit 2-3 imply Godly knowledge and which imply sexual knowledge?

6. Commentators: Ibn Ezra

  • Let's now look at how our commentators have understood the "knowledge" granted by the tree.
  • See Ibn Ezra (First Commentary) on Bereshit 2:17 (from: "ודע כי האדם מלא דעת היה . . . שהוא בער").
  • What definition of "דעת" does he reject here? Why?
  • Now look at his comments in his First Commentary on Bereshit 3:6 (from: "והנכון בעיני").
  • Which definition of "דעת" does Ibn Ezra adopt?
  • How does he support his reading?

7. Ibn Ezra: Biblical Context

  • To better appreciate Ibn Ezra’s approach and how it fits the context of the chapter, go to the Tanakh Lab.
  • This will enable us to analyze the components of our text and find the words that appear with the greatest frequency within Bereshit 3.
  • What word appears with the greatest frequency in this chapter relative to the rest of Tanakh? [See the table.]
  • How does this support Ibn Ezra’s interpretation?
  • What other aspects of the narrative in Bereshit 3:1-4:2 support the interpretation that eating from the tree granted sexual knowledge?

8. Ibn Ezra: Difficulties

  • While Ibn Ezra’s approach is supported by several aspects of the narrative, it is challenged by Bereshit 3:5 and Bereshit 3:22, which describe "ידיעת טוב ורע" as Godly knowledge. How is sexual desire a Godly attribute? [This problem is pointed out by Ramban on Bereshit 2:9.]
  • To understand how Ibn Ezra addresses this problem, see Ibn Ezra on 3:5 and 3:22 (from:"וטעם הפסוק . . . על מחשבתו").
  • What are Ibn Ezra’s two suggestions for explaining how "ידיעת טוב ורע" can be Godly knowledge?
  • Do you have any other ideas of how to resolve this tension?

9. Ibn Ezra: Solutions

  • Ibn Ezra resolves the issue by suggesting that the word "אלהים" in the verse be understood as angels rather than God, or that the verse is speaking from the mistaken perspective of man.
  • Do you find these answers satisfying? Why or why not?
  • Another way of resolving the difficulty and understanding how sexual desire could be associated with God is that such desire gives man the identity and drive to be a creator, in emulation of God the ultimate creator.
  • Do you have any other questions about Ibn Ezra’s interpretation?

10. Commentators: Ramban

  • Let's compare Ibn Ezra's reading of the story with that of Ramban.
  • See Ramban on Bereshit 2:9 (from "והיפה בעיני" until the end of the commentary).
  • Which definition of "דעת" does Ramban adopt?
  • Which verses in the narrative of חטא עץ הדעת support this interpretation?
  • How does Ramban integrate the understanding of "דעת" as sexual knowledge (as implied by Bereshit 3:7) into his commentary?
  • According to Ramban, how is the acquisition of "ידיעת טוב ורע" both a positive and a negative transformation for man?

11. Understanding Ramban

  • Ramban adopts the interpretation that the fruit imparted the capacity for free choice.
  • Sexual morality is one arena of human desire and choice, and is thus associated with eating from the tree.
  • Free choice is a Godly quality that elevates man, but also forces him to contend with temptation and the evil inclination (יצר הרע). As such, eating from the tree had both positive and negative consequences.
  • What problems, though, are raised by Ramban’s interpretation of ידיעת טוב ורע?

12. Ramban: Difficulties

  • Abarbanel (commentary on Bereshit 2:8) points out the apparent logical inconsistency of claiming that man acquired free choice by eating from the tree, when it would appear that the decision to eat from the tree implies that he already had free choice.
  • A potential resolution has been offered by Tamar Werdiger ("עץ הדעת", Megadim 22 (1994): 9-22). She suggests that "ידיעת טוב ורע" implies the actualization of free choice rather than simply the abstract potential for free choice.
  • Man was created with the capacity for free choice, but only achieved the reality of free choice once he exercised that capacity by eating from the tree.
  • Do you have any other suggestions of how to resolve this issue?

13. Commentators: Rambam

  • In Mishneh Torah, Rambam understands "ידיעת טוב ורע" as free choice, similar to the interpretation of Ramban. (Note that Rambam presents another interpretation in Moreh Nevukhim.)
  • See his discussion in Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1-2.
  • How is Rambam’s interpretation similar to and how is it different from that of Ramban? What do the differences imply about each thinker's general approach to the concept of free will?
  • What does Rambam’s interpretation imply about the extent of divine predestination before and after חטא עץ הדעת?
  • How would you understand why, according to Rambam, Hashem would have chosen to create man without free will initially?
  • Do you have any other questions about Rambam’s interpretation?

14. Questions for Further Analysis

  • According to each of the commentators we have seen, what was the fundamental change to human nature effectuated by חטא עץ הדעת and how transformative was that change?
  • According to each commentator, is "ידיעת טוב ורע" positive, negative, or ambiguous?
  • How do you think each commentator would explain why man was not initially granted "ידיעת טוב ורע"?
  • How do you think each commentator would explain why man acquired "ידיעת טוב ורע" through sin?

15. Summary

  • The narrative of the Tree of Knowledge raises conceptual and philosophical questions which are based in part on the ambiguity of the meaning of "ידיעת טוב ורע".
  • We have seen two approaches: the fruit of the tree imparted either sexual knowledge and awareness or the broader capacity for free choice and moral decision-making.
  • Each of these approaches is supported by aspects of the Biblical text and challenged by others.
  • Study of this question leaves the reader with fundamental questions to ponder, such as why God initially created man without knowledge of good and evil, why this knowledge was acquired through sin, and what are the positive and negative aspects of this knowledge.
  • The nuances of the narrative, and the fascinating, multidimensional questions it raises, point to the multifaceted complexity of human nature and human experience.

16. Additional Reading