We’re going to talk about the פרי עץ הדעת, which wasn’t an apple. But what was it?
Note that this implies that it was one particular forbidden tree, not an “unkosher” fruit species. The Torah does not specify what tree it was, so that we would still be willing to eat its kind today. It wasn’t some kind of magical fruit; it was simply the מצווה that ה׳ had given them. But despite this, the gemara speculates on the species of the פרי עץ הדעת:
And the same midrash we quoted above offers those suggestions plus one more:
So we clearly aren’t trying to figure out what kind of fruit it was (ח״ו לא גלה הקדוש ב״ה אותו אילן לאדם ולא עתיד לגלותו). These suggestions are symbolic. But what do they symbolize? The Maharal answers:
The Maharal is commenting on the gemara, so for the etrog hypothesis, we have to speculate. But the underlying idea is that each “fruit” symbolizes a different suggestion for the kind of error אדם and חוה made. They chose to focus on something other than obeying ה׳ as the ultimate good, the purpose of life.
The תאנה symbolizes satisfying physical needs, specifically procreation.
This is the predominant Christian interpretation of the עץ הדעת.
Wine symbolizes pleasure. The ultimate good is our own happiness (nowadays, we would say the פרי עץ הדעת was heroin, that directly turns on the brain’s pleasure center).
And the proof is from Noah:
Wheat is interesting. חז״ל consider it the food that stimulates the human intellect:
Saying the פרי עץ הדעת was wheat is saying that the sin of אדם and חוה was creating their own ethics (no matter how moral that ethics may have been) rather than obeying the explicit מצוַת ה׳.
The Maharal doesn’t deal with the etrog opinion, but I think it corresponds to Rav Soloveitchik’s model for the sin of the פרי עץ הדעת, the esthetic.
There exists some absolute standard for beauty, and that represents the ultimate good.
So was the עץ הדעת a גפן or a חטה or a תאנה or an אתרוג? Yes. The Torah doesn’t tell us the reason for their sin, because all are real and are all possible. And more than that, they are all built into the structure of creation.
What does it mean to say that the land defied ה׳ and brought forth the wrong kind of tree? The Maharal explains that this was ה׳‘s intention; the land was created incapable of following ה׳’s command:
And this is how Ramban understands the words נעשה אדם: ה׳ is talking to the imperfect Earth that He had created:
We are both earthly and heavenly; the עץ עושה פרי symbolizes the earthly part. But we can’t reject it: the first מצווה was actually מכל עץ הגן אכל תאכל. However, it needs to be subject to רצון ה׳; that is what is means to say ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו. Our power is to be able to choose which side of our nature comes to the fore.