Knowledge or Lack Thereof?

Esther Leventer


יז : וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ

17 : But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it

בראשית ב: יז

          The above piece of a passuk is from a story that we are all quite familiar with. In fact, one may argue that we are actually too familiar with it. Sefer Bereshit is a sefer that many of us don’t delve into past the 2nd grade level- and so the series of events that take place become rote and almost meaningless. We overlook glaring questions and gloss over skewed semantics, because the story has become to us much like a childhood fable. In this blog post we are going to try to uncover the hidden meaning behind a very specific concept - עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע. What does this tree represent? Is it in fact a tree? How do we define דַּעַת"”? Why doesn’t G-d want man to eat from this tree? Is the term  תֹאכַל literal? All of these questions and more will be investigated in the next few pages- ultimately arriving at the interpretation the Rambam might have drawn had he compiled a commentary on Tanach.

A few commentaries make small comments on this passage:

Ramban- don’t eat of its fruits

Seforno- in the center of the garden near the tree of life

Onkolos- don’t eat from the fruits that allow you to differentiate between good and evil


It seems that many of the commentaries on this passuk lack a deeper explanation as to what the “tree of knowledge good and evil” really was and what the true ramifications of eating from it included.


So let’s begin by asking ourselves the following question- What does it actually mean “to eat from the tree”? According to Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim, the term “akal” (to eat) is figuratively used in the sense of "acquiring wisdom" or "learning"; in short, for all intellectual perceptions. Rambam defends this interpretation by acknowledging that wisdom preserves the human intellect the same way that food preserves the physical human body. Rambam points out that this figurative use of the verb "akal" in the sense of "acquiring wisdom" is frequently met with in the Talmud. For example: "Come, eat fat meat at Raba's" (Baba Bathra 22a), "All expressions of 'eating' and 'drinking' found in this book refer to wisdom,"(Proverbs) etc.

According to the Rambam, the figurative meaning (to aquire wisdom) of these expressions has been so general and common, that it was almost considered to be its prime signification, and led to the use of the terms "hunger" and "thirst" in the sense of "absence or lack of wisdom and intelligence". For example, "I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord"; "My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God" (Ps. xlii. 3). Instances of this kind occur frequently. Another example is found in Isa. Xii. 3 where it says "With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation", Jonathan son of Uzziel paraphrases this: "You will joyfully receive new instruction from the chosen of the righteous." Rambam points out that the reader should consider how he explains "water" to indicate "the wisdom which will then spread," and "the wells" as being interchangeable with "the eyes of the congregation" (Num. XV. 24). By the phrase, "from the chosen of the righteous," he expresses his belief that righteousness is true salvation. In every word in this verse, which at first glance seems to be referring to physical thirst and hunger, there is some signification referring to wisdom and study.

Based on this interpretation, it seems appropriate to conclude that when Hashem commands Adam and Chava not to eat from the Eitz Hada’at tov vara, the commandment is not referring to the literal acquisition of food, but rather, Hashem is telling them not to aquire wisdom from this specific tree.

This leads us to our next question- If Hashem is commanding them not to aquire wisdom from the tree, then what kind of wisdom did they have before they acquired wisdom from it? And what new wisdom did they now embody after sinning?

Many people often refer to the tree simply as “Eitz Hada’at”. However, it is important to use its full name “Eitz hada’at tov vara”, since the tree would not be providing Adam with wisdom, for he was not void of it pre-sin. Instead the tree offers a very specific and new kind of wisdom.

According to the Rambam, through “Da’at” man can distinguish between truth and falsehood, and this is the type of wisdom Adam possessed before acquiring wisdom from the tree. Truth and falsehood is a very objective kind of wisdom. It allows one to clearly differentiate between what is and what isn’t, without the disclarity imposed by our instinctual drives and desires. The type of wisdom that the tree possessed was that of good (tov) and evil (ra). According to the Rambam, there is a significant difference between truth and falsehood and good and evil. For example, it is not correct to say, in reference to "the heavens are spherical," it is "good" or to say that the assertion "the earth is flat" is "bad": but we say of the first that it is true, and of the latter that it is false. When Adam was still in a state of innocence pre-sin, he was guided solely by reason, by truth and falsehood. Once he acquired wisdom from the tree however, Adam began to give way to his imaginative desires and to the gratification of his animalistic instincts. The type of wisdom that the tree possessed, that of good and evil, according to the Rambam, was wisdom that clouded truth and falsehood by bringing in the new elements of instinct and desire. (In Rabbi Fohrman’s book “The Beast that Crouches at the Door" he brings an example of someone who accidentally hits a parked car. In a state of emet and sheker one would know to pay the damages, but in a state where tov vara intervenes, our intellect is clouded and we may rationalize that we are not responsible) According to this, acquiring knowledge from the tree would not make Adam a greater or more powerful person as we so often believe. It would not make him more “G-dly” so to speak. In fact, it was quite the opposite; once Adam acquired wisdom from the tree he became further from G-dliness, not closer. He lost his clear perception of truth and falsehood and became the subject of desires and instincts he would now need to learn how to control. Thus, G-d was not guarding the tree for G-d’s own sake in order to maintain His position as creator, but rather for Adam’s sake.

So it is likely that, according to the Rambam, this part of the passuk means that Hashem is commanding Adam and Chava to not aquire knowledge from the tree of instinct and desire- don’t pursue this type of knowledge, it will push you further from G-d. (Some say Adam knew this and wanted to prove that he could overcome it, but because he never experienced tov and ra he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.) Adam did not have complete wisdom but one can argue that it was the most perfect kind, that of emet and sheker and that we shouldn’t search to have the most wisdom but the best quality of wisdom.

Seek out Emet and be able to recognize sheker, that is the wisdom that will bring you closer to Hashem. Adam did not initially have complete wisdom, but one can argue that according to the Rambam, it was the most perfect kind – the knowledge of truth and falsehood- and that we shouldn’t search to have the most wisdom but rather the best quality of wisdom.