Was it an apple?

Was it an apple?

Jewish studies scholar from Rutgers looks at the Adam and Eve story

That fruit that Eve ate? The one on the tree in the middle of the garden? The tree that God said was of the knowledge of good and evil, whatever that means when you translate it to horticulture? You know, Gan Eden. The Garden of Eden. The fruit that God told Adam not to eat, and the serpent told Eve would be a great snack? The fruit that she shared with Adam?

That fruit. What exactly was it?

It was an apple, right? Wasn’t it? Doesn’t Bereisheit, the Book of Genesis, tell us that? Doesn’t it say so? And don’t Christians care more about it than we do, anyway?

(The answers to these questions are no, no, no, no, and yes. Because the scene in the garden grows into the concepts of original sin and the grandly phrased Fall of Man, Christians do care more about it than Jews do.)

Azzan Yadin-Israel is a professor of Jewish studies and classics at Rutgers; he’s written a book, “Temptation Transformed: The Story of How the Forbidden Fruit Became an Apple,” and he’ll talk about it at Rutgers’ Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life on February 22. (See box.)

“The important thing about this work is that it’s exciting,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said; it’s an intellectual challenge, it’s multidisciplinary, it’s cross-cultural. “It’s the forbidden fruit, it’s interesting culturally and religiously — and it’s kind of sexy.”

Azzan Yadin-Israel

His work, of course, he said, “is a work of scholarship,” although he sees it as a kind of academic mystery. “It touches on a very well-known biblical theme, and at the same time it is a sustained attempt to address this theme using scholarly tools.”

It’s sort of like Agatha Christie, just a little more scholarly, he said.

His goal in this new book is to trace how the fruit became an apple. That’s the mystery.

“In the Bible, it’s just a forbidden fruit,” he continued. “Today, everybody knows that it is an apple. How did that happen?

“There’s a very long tradition that answers that question. It’s because the Latin words for evil and apple are the same. Malum.” That’s a coincidence, Dr. Yadin-Israel said; the two words once were pronounced differently. “The length of the vowels was different, and that was a distinguishing factor in Latin, but ultimately it disappeared in spoken Latin, and they always were spelled the same way.” The two words became homonyms.

“Once that happened, they were ripe for the picking,” Dr. Yadin-Israel punned. “The argument was widely accepted. I found it in a text from the 1650s.

This anonymous carving, the Receptio Animae Sarcophagus, from around 330 CE, at the Church of St. Engracia in Zaragosa, Spain, shows Adam, Eve, a short tree, and a small serpent. (Antonio Mostalac Carrillo)

“But I thought that something different might have happened, and I set out to investigate.”

The first part of his book “investigates the current regnant hypothesis” — that’s the malum/malum/bad apple one — “and it turns out that there is nothing to support it,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. 

“Nowhere, in any of the Latin commentaries in Genesis, does anyone make this pun. No one plays on these worlds until the 14th century. Until then, commentators don’t even know that apples are being proposed as a candidate” for the role of mystery fruit.

Until then, most commentators thought that the fruit was either a grape or a fig; others proposed the pomegranate.

Dr. Yadin-Israel pursued those fruits throughout rabbinic and then Christian texts, but could find no reason for their disappearance.

“Where is the apple?” he asked. “So I shifted gears methodologically.” He pursued the question as an art historian, looking at the Fall of Man and related subjects “with the intention of charting where and when artists began to depict the forbidden fruit as an apple.

Michelangelo’s 1512 “Fall of Man,” in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. (Sebastian Bergmann via Wikimedia Commons )

“It starts in 12th-century France,” he said. “And once the apple is introduced, it just takes over everything else.

“Until then, for hundreds and hundreds of years, artists had shown the fruit as a grape, a fig, a pomegranate, or whatever else. They were free to paint whatever they chose. Once the apple is introduced, it overcomes all the others. All other fruits are excluded.”

After the move toward the apple started, its acceptance was geographically based. “It started in France, and after that it took over in England, in Germany, in the Low Countries,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. “But it doesn’t happen in Italy.”

It’s not that apples did not grow in Italy. “The Romans ate apples,” he said; and Italians have been eating them ever since. But apples did not become the forbidden fruit in Italy as they did in countries to its north and west.

In fact, Dr. Yadin-Israel said, when Michelangelo painted the scene of Adam and Eve accepting fruit from the serpent, and then being expelled from the Garden — the one in the Sistine Chapel — that fruit was a fig. It’s not easy to see — but it’s not an apple. “Up until the High Renaissance, it wasn’t an apple,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. “It’s so well-known that the fruit there is a fig — but still people are so surprised to learn that.

“We so strongly associate the forbidden fruit with an apple that we can look at a fig and see an apple.”

As the inset makes clear, the fruit is a fig. (Sebastian Bergmann via
Wikimedia Commons)

This shift to apples, along with his debunking the malum/bad apple theory, “allows me to present the hypothesis that the transition to the apple is based on the change that occurs in the shift from Latin to the European vernaculars,” he said.

“Basically, in the Latin retelling of the Fall of Man stories, the forbidden fruit was called a ‘ponum,’” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. “Old French does not have a word for apple. It’s not a malum. There is a French word for bad — ‘malle’ — but not for apple.

“So what did happen is that the French word ‘pomme’ — which originally just meant the generic fruit, began to undergo what we call a semantic narrowing.

“The meaning began to narrow not to mean tree fruit, but to mean apple.

“The result of that is that nearly all the early Old French translations of Genesis and the Old French poems about the Fall of Man — something that Christians discuss endlessly in literature and theology — probably use the word ‘pomme’ in the sense of fruit. But once the word changed its meaning, all of those sources were interpreted, in a really straightforward way, as saying that the Fall of Man was through an apple. Eve gave Adam a pomme.

“And the readers didn’t think they were interpreting anything. It was just straightforwardly the Book of Genesis.”

The fruit that Jan Van Eyck’s Eve holds up in his 1432 “Ghent Altapiece” in Ghent, Belgium, definitely is not
an apple. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

That change was it. Game over. “Once it became an apple, all of the other fruits disappeared,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. “Once the Book of Genesis tells you that Eve gave Adam a pomme, why would you draw a fig?

“The same thing happened linguistically in Middle English and German. The word ‘apple’ used to be a generic term for fruit.

“There’s one example of this still today. The original meaning of the word ‘pineapple’ was ‘fruit of the pine.’ That’s because when Europeans discovered this new tropical fruit, the triangles on its skin reminded them of pinecones.” So it because a pineapple — the fruit of a pine tree, at least metaphorically — and so it remained, after the word apple changed its meaning and so the fruit’s name became harder to decipher.”

When the Middle High German word narrowed to “apple,” “that’s when the transformation happened in art,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. “The place where there was no change in the meaning of the word was Italy. The word ‘mella’ never meant generic fruit. It always meant apple.” So the question of why the art didn’t change in Italy is solved. “They can chug along with the fig tradition, through Michelangelo, into Raphael. They are still depicting their forbidden fruit as figs.

“There’s a fig tradition in Italy that lasts 350 or so years after the fig has become an apple in France.

“So you can map out the linguistic change and the art-historical or iconographic change, and you can see how they move in tandem in France, and then the art follows the linguistic change in Germany and England.

In this anonymous manuscript from
c. 1250-1299, Adam and Eve stand by a tree. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

“It’s a very interesting combination of linguistic and iconographic change working together. You can juxtapose the two and show how they work together.”

He solved an academic mystery that “I have been working on for years, and I am so thrilled,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said.

Dr. Yadin-Israel, who lives in Highland Park, is trained in using rabbinic sources, and he’s a professor of rabbinics. “I’ve published two books on early rabbinic midrashim, and primarily on the ways in which the earliest rabbis interpret the legal section of the Bible, primarily Leviticus,” he said. “I got my Ph.D. in rabbinics at the University of California at Berkeley.” His interests range widely, however. “My primary affiliation is the Jewish studies department, but I also teach Plato and Greek philosophy more broadly in the classics department,” he said.

“As a side project, I am writing a series of dictionaries of historical cognates. It’s a series, called ‘Intuitive Vocabulary,’ that’s intended to help English-speaking students learning foreign languages to recognize the historic similarities between languages and see how they are connected. I’ve published the German and Spanish volumes, and just finished the one on ancient Greek.

“I’ve always been interested in language change, even when it’s not directly related to my work in rabbinics, and it’s been a strong enough interest that I’ve been writing these books for the last 10 years.”

Ah. So now the mystery of why Dr. Yadin-Israel is so drawn to the story of the forbidden fruit becomes a little more clear. It’s all about context. Or, as he puts it, “it’s all about how things change when they come into contact with each other.

This anonymous painting at the Church of St. Athanasius in Bulgaria, circa 1666-1669, shows Adam, Eve, the tree, a serpent’s head, and some dismayed angels. (Florentina Badalanova Geller)

“In the classroom, we are interested in text, and of course every text has a context. It has its own historicity.

“Jews historically have been a minority living in a dominant non-Jewish culture, and of course that is fertile ground for various types of intellectual and creative and economic and all other sorts of contacts.”

Think of music, he suggests; think of how Jewish music from Morocco, say, or klezmer music, first from Eastern Europe and then from the New World, sound like the music of the places where they were played. “This contact and change never ends,” he said. “People think that there is a rigid core of culture and tradition, and there is occasional contact,” most likely just around the edges. “But the historic reality is that it’s all constantly transforming, and this contact — linguistic, cultural contact — is all part of a broader set of questions that I am interested in, both in a rabbinic context and more broadly.”

So, given all that, what did Jews think that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was?

“The main issue is that the word ‘tapuach’ — apple, in modern Hebrew — doesn’t appear in this sense in the Bible.

“There were no apples in the ancient Near East. They hadn’t been cultivated yet,” Dr. Yadin-Israel continued. He quotes a 13th-century “Ashkenazi polemical anti-Christian text,” written in Hebrew, called “Nizzachon Vetus” — itself an unlikely amalgam of Hebrew and Latin that means “Ancient Victor” — “where the author says to his imaginary Christian interlocutor that ‘You Christians keep talking about how the Jewish God is vengeful and the Christian God is a God of grace and mercy, but look at what you said God did, just because Eve ate a tapuach!’

In this illumination from a Book of Hours from the workshop of Jacques de Besançon (1500-1515), an oddly pallid Eve shows her wan Adam an apple. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

“This is the first place where you have a tapuach in the context of the Fall of Man, but I don’t know what he means by tapuach.” It might be apple — but then again it might not.

“And that’s it. There’s almost no reference to the forbidden fruit as being an apple in Jewish sources down down down into the 19th century.”

Part of that is because the story itself is more central to Christianity than to Judaism. “Of course it’s in the Bible, but culturally it was appropriated by the church,” Dr. Yadin-Israel said. The question of original sin, which can be redeemed through Jesus’s death and resurrection, obviously is not of interest to Jews.

“In traditional Jewish circles, though, the fruit never did become an apple,” he said. “The more immersed a Jewish community would be in the broader European community, the more likely it was to be an apple. The final nail in the coffin of the other fruits was the invention of the printing press.”

This was true in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds, even in Italy, he added. At first, “all the printing presses were in apple country. The most circulated book in northern Europe was Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. He was a big believer in the power of images as an educational tool, and from the first edition of the Bible he included woodcuts.

“At first he didn’t have one for Genesis 3, but by the fifth or sixth edition there was one, showing Eve picking an apple.

“At that moment, the idea of the fruit being an apple gained a currency that it couldn’t have had before the mass medium was created.

In 1507, Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve hold apples. (Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

“So for the Jewish reception of the apple tradition, it depends on how much Jews are looking at illustrated books, or have children who are looking at books that are not traditional Jewish ones. 

“So a maskilic family from Mendelsohn’s time” — in other words, a family guided by Enlightenment ideas, living in 18th-century Germany — “would come across apples, and it would become normative for them, as it has for us. Whereas kids growing up in, say, a more traditional Lithuanian environment would not be exposed to the idea of an apple.

“It’s a very interesting dynamic in terms of the measure of acculturation or assimilation.”

So what at first seemed like a simple question — where did that apple come from? — becomes a complicated story of changes across time and space as Jewish families adjust to the Christian world around them, and Jews and Christians alike adjust to changes in language, theology, and geography.

And all because Eve ate that apple…

Who: Azzan Yadin-Israel, professor of Jewish studies and classics at Rutgers

What: Will talk about his new book, “Temptation Transformed”

When: On Wednesday, February 22, at 7 p.m.

Where: At the Douglass Student Center on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus

For whom: The Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life

How much and for whom: It’s free and open to the public

What else: Light refreshments will follow the talk. 

How to get in: Online registration is necessary. Go to BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu.

For more information: Call Darcy Maher at (732) 406-6584 or email her at dbmbildner@comcast.net

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