It’s true, I have a thing for trees. I love the way they look and smell, the different heights, the fruits, the nuts, the flowers, the bark, the roots, the leaves; I love it all.
Adam and Eve’s garden was full of every kind of tree with everything good for eating growing everywhere, plus the two extras: the Tree of Life and the Tree of All Knowledge. Adam and Eve ignored the first, but as we all know they ate from the Tree of All Knowledge. The Rabbis debate what kind of fruit it was exactly that was eaten from that tree. B’reishit Rabbah 15:71records a marvelous discussion of this. Rabbi Meir believes they ate wheat; as it was one of the earliest domesticated grains, it was considered to be a source and symbol of wisdom (ibid. note 7). When Rabbi Samuel argued that wheat is not a tree, he was told by Rabbi Ze’era that “[in the Garden of Eden] stalks of wheat were like trees, for they grew to the height of cedars of Lebanon.” Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said that perhaps it was grapes that Adam ate because they brought bitterness into the world. According to Rabbi Abba of Acco it was an etrog, because Eve saw that the tree itself (understood as the wood of the tree) was good for eating (Genesis 3:6), and the rabbi insists that the wood of the etrog tree is the only edible wood in existence.
But Rabbi Yose explains that it was figs they ate and points to their use of fig leaves immediately after the eating of the knowledge fruit: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7).
After all this debate and speculation, the midrash concludes with the words of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, “Heaven forbid [that we should try to guess the identity of the tree.] The Holy One did not reveal it, nor will He reveal it, for He who is everywhere spares [the honor of a tree, even as He spares] man’s honor (ibid., p. 22). By “the honor of a tree,” he means that no tree should bear the blame for bringing death to the world. Therefore we should cease the search and speculation about which fruit exactly might have been the one Adam and Eve enjoyed.
It is slightly ironic. We are warned away from investigating the source of knowledge. The discussion and arguments for and against each tree are so delicious, so creative, they make me want more. I want to discuss the apple, the pomegranate, the seder-plate orange. Why not kiwi or mango or star fruit? I would delight in a dinner discussion where each participant brings arguments in support of their favorite fruit, nut, or grain—why it must be the source of all knowledge. But no, we are taught that should we delve too deeply, we may destroy the honor of a tree, and like a person, the dignity of a tree must also be protected.
But perhaps there is a different concern here. If I knew which tree it was that could fill me up with knowledge2, I believe I would seek out that tree. I would eat its fruit daily. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be the only one either. I wonder if we all could grow our own trees of knowledge (depending on climate, soil, rain, and so on) would the trees and their fruit become so beloved, so adored, so central in our lives that we might turn to them for all answers? Perhaps we do not know exactly which fruit is the knowledge fruit so that we will avoid the temptations of idolatry.
After all is said and done though, I find that I respectfully disagree with Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. I think perhaps we are supposed to search for (but maybe not find) this tree of knowledge, this fruit that changes everything. And I believe we do this to honor—not dishonor—the tree, and in fact we do so to honor all trees. If we were to look at each tree as if it had something to teach us, how might that change our relationship to the tree? What is it that the pecan tree teaches when blooming with nuts, what do we learn from the smell of the lemon tree or the beauty of the cherry blossom? When we search for knowledge, I believe we will find it everywhere we look.
There are so many moments in Judaism where people and trees or fruit are compared: bringing our confirmation students rather than our first fruits on Shavuot; the tradition of waiting until a boy is three years old to cut his hair just as we wait to pluck fruit from a three-year-old fruit tree; the use of a blooming almond branch in Numbers 17:23 to symbolize Aaron’s leadership; and too many other stories and traditions to list here. Perhaps if we can learn to seek out the knowledge and wisdom that each tree has to teach us, we may also learn to do the same with each person we encounter. God did not reveal the identity of the tree to us, I believe in order that we should use its knowledge to seek out more knowledge, to imagine it waiting for us in every garden, in every face we see. Let us bring honor to the “trees of knowledge” and let’s have that dinner party where we share what it is we learn from each fruit: we may also learn something deeply important from each of the people we’ve invited. Perhaps, learning from each other may be just the thing that original tree in the garden was trying to teach us all along.
1 B’reishit Rabbah 15:7, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed., Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) pp. 21–2
2 To learn more, see The JPS Commentary: Genesis, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 19
At the time of this writing in 2011, Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker joyfully served as the rabbi for Congregation Kol Ami in Vancouver, Washington.