Apples have gotten a bad rap, especially in religious art, for their depiction as the forbidden fruit. So let the record stand clear that while there are various opinions as to the fruit’s identity, it most certainly was not an apple. (More about this later.)
Our sages write that the Torah obscures the identity of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden out of concern that people will constantly point and say, “That is the species of fruit that brought death unto the world.” Nevertheless, the sages offer various opinions based on clues found in the Torah.
- Wheat: Wheat represents knowledge in Torah thought, because a child is considered to have attained a certain level of intellectual maturity only after he or she has tasted wheat.
According to this opinion, wheat was originally meant to grow on a tree, not as a grain, but as bread already baked. After the sin, this tree which would grow ready-made baked goods was reduced to a lowly plant which had to be harvested and processed to produce flour. In the future, when the sin of the forbidden fruit will be rectified, the Tree of Knowledge will be restored to its former glory.
- Grapes or Wine: There is no fruit that can cause as much misery as the grape and its wine. According to the Zohar, Noah planted grapes upon leaving the Ark in an attempt to rectify the sin of the forbidden fruit.
Some women have the custom of not partaking in the wine of havdalah based on the opinion that the forbidden fruit may have been grapes.
- Fig: The fig tree plays a well-known role in Adam and Eve’s story, providing clothing rather than nourishment, and some commentators suggest there may be a connection: “By that with which they were made low were they rectified.”
The Midrash gives the parable of a king’s son who disgraced himself with one of the maidservants. When the king heard of it, he deprived his son of high rank and expelled him from the palace. The son then went about to the doors of the other maidservants, and none would take him in. But she who disgraced herself with him opened the door of her house and received him.
“So, too, when Adam ate of that tree, the Holy One deprived him of his lofty status and expelled him from the Garden of Eden. Adam then went about among all the trees, but none would let him take even one leaf . . . But the fig tree whose fruit Adam had eaten opened its doors [so to speak] and received him, as is said, ‘They sewed fig leaves together.’”
- Etrog (citron): The verse states that “the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.” This implies that not only did the fruit of the tree have a good taste, but the wood of the tree itself had a good taste. This is true only with regards to the etrog tree.
Furthermore, etrog is related to the Aramaic word for “desire.” Thus, in the verse “G‑d caused to spring up from the soil every type of tree, desirable to look at and good to eat . . . ,” the Targum translates the word “desirable” as dimeragag, which shares a root with the word etrog.
This is the source for the custom that some pregnant women have, to bite off the tip of an etrog on the last day of Sukkot as a remedy to ease the pains of labor.
- Nut: Rabbi Amram Gaon identifies the forbidden fruit as a nut, and mentions it in one of the blessings recited during the marriage ceremony in his siddur.
Some commentators explain that in truth, the prohibition of eating the forbidden fruit either included in it all of the different opinions mentioned in the Talmud (i.e., grape, wheat, fig), or was a unique fruit which was a blend of all of them.
As for apples, the modern consensus seems to be that the source of this misconception is that the Latin word mălum, meaning “evil,” was associated with mālum, another Latin word, borrowed from Greek, meaning “apple.”