What was the effect of eating from the Tree of Knowledge?

A fresh look at the questions raised by the story of Creation and Adam's sin.

Gavriel Cohn, | updated: 06:31

Judaism Gavriel Cohn
Gavriel Cohn

The sin of Adam eating from the Tree of Knowledge contains many peculiarities (Bereshit chapters 2-3).

What exactly was the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge? What were its effects?

Why did Adam and Eve suddenly feel the need to cover themselves in clothes?

Why did Adam rename his wife Chava after eating from the forbidden fruit (when previously he had named her ‘Isha’)?

Why were all three parties cursed with hostilities— the snake was to be a threat to and threatened by mankind, Eve was to be dominated by her husband, and Adam was to suffer in labouring the now hostile earth?

In order to answer these questions, we need to understand the change that took place after eating the forbidden fruit. The world and man’s position in it fundamentally altered once he had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge.

Prior to the sin, the entire world was almost one singular entity. Adam and his wife were organically united with all of creation. Adam was called Adam because he had come from the earth and was joined to it [through his working it] and Isha was called Isha because she came from and was composed of the same flesh as Adam himself. So Adam was joined to the earth and Eve was joined to Adam. The entire world was therefore one united unit.

Furthermore, before they eat from the Tree of Knowledge, they had no independent self-interests, no personally-driven desires (see Rashi, 2:25). Adam and Eve, together with the animal kingdom, worked united in guarding and cultivating their environment. That is why they felt no need to clothe themselves and were not embarrassed by each other’s state of undress, as they were all united and connected, and had no personal urges to take advantage or gain self-directed pleasure from one another.

Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge implanted within them an evil inclination. In other words, it meant that both Adam and his wife now had the desire to pursue their own independent self-interests. This therefore fractured the unity of creation that once was. No longer was Adam joined almost with his very being to the earth that he was charged with tilling; instead Adam was severed from his connection to it and he had to endure back-breaking labour in order to work the land and extract sustenance for himself.

Eve was no longer coupled and united to Adam, joined together with the same singular aim of working the land and of caring for Adam (“ezer kenegdo”). Rather, with her newly acquire evil inclination and self-interests she now had a new identity, a completely independent role, Chava, to be the mother of all people; that was why Adam then renamed her, defining her by her new, discrete purpose. Thirdly, the animal kingdom was no longer at one with mankind— after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, both Adam and Eve had their own self-interests and thus exploited and threatened the snake, who, in turn, was hostile towards them. Furthermore, now both Adam and Eve had their own respective desires and urges towards each other, thus they both now had to cover themselves, embarrassed by each other.

In short, a huge shift took place with Adam’s sin. Before the sin, all the world was united as one singular entity. No one had their own self-interests, all of creation was one united unit. The sin of the Tree of Knowledge gave both Adam and Eve their own independent drives and personalities, and thereby fractured the once united world.

In this ‘post-Sin’ world, in which Adam and Eve had their own respective personalities and self-interests, they each felt vulnerable and insecure, threatened by both each other and by the animal kingdom. It was precisely this that caused them to come together and have children, thereby creating a family— one united, strong, mutually- and reciprocally-helping group.

Perhaps this paradigm shift caused by the Sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, can help us solve the famously noted discrepancies between the two accounts of creation, between the first chapter of Bereshit and the second chapter of Bereshit.

The first chapter of Bereshit could simply be a brief overview of the entire creation of the world, from the creation of the natural world and the plants and animals within it, until man’s current existence and goal after he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. In counter-distinction, the second chapter is a detailed exposition of mankind’s development, from his original role, through to his sin on the Sixth Day that caused him to be expelled from the Garden of Eden and be charged with an entirely new and different existential role.

Before the sin, Adam and Eve were confined to a very small geographic area of the world, the lush and beautiful Garden of Eden [shown to be a geographical location and not a mystical paradise removed from the world by the verses’ very mention of the rivers that flowed out from it to other locations!]. In this Garden, Man was charged with the limited task of working the soil (“ha’adama”) and was provided with his wife in order to help him in this narrow role and to care for him. After the sin, however, man’s role changed and was expanded greatly. No longer was he charged with merely tilling the soil of a beautiful though small garden. Instead he was commanded to conquer the entire world and gain mastery over it (“ha’aretz”, meaning the entire world, as opposed to “ha’adama”, the soil).

Thus, the first chapter of Bereshit, a brief summary and overview of the unfolding of the world, tells only of man’s current commanded purpose, to multiply and conquer the world. Chapter two then explains how this came to be, delving into the details the creation story— "this is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day that Hashem, God, made the earth and the heavens"— and story of the shift of man’s role in the world, from his original placement in the Garden of Eden purely in order to till its soil (“le’avda u’leshamra”) to his new, greatly-expanded ‘post-Sin’ commandment to populate and conquer the entire world (“peru u’milu vekivshu et ha’aretz”).

This then explains the later narrative of Parashat Bereshit, namely, the lists of the genealogies of Adam. It was only after Adam and Eve were expelled that they began to procreated and have children. The sedra then thus describes how mankind, having been displaced from the small confines of the Garden of Eden began to populate the earth, sprawling outwards (thereby fulfilling their newly-received commandment of “peru u’revu u’milu et ha’aretz”). They also began to advance human civilisation technologically (thereby fulfilling the new commandment of “ve’kivshuha”) and to organise themselves into societies and cities.

In summary, before the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge man was only charged with tilling the soil of the Garden of Eden with the assistance of his help-mate, his wife. Furthermore, neither they nor the animal kingdom had their own independent self-interests or desires, all of creation was one united entity, focused entirely on safe-guarding the world. After the sin, however, this unity was broken and mankind now had their own competing desires and interests— human beings now became a discrete entity, separated from the rest of the natural world, and became powerful dominants in the world. After being expelled from the Garden of Eden Adam was therefore given an entirely new role, he was commanded to fill the world with human beings and to gain mastery over it. Thus Adam and Eve began to procreate until they indeed ‘filled the earth,’ as portrayed in the later chapters of Parashat Bereshit.

Chapter One of Bereshit tells this creation story briefly, ending with God, after He set up the world, ‘stepping back’ and “resting” after man’s sin, and allowing man to ‘enter’ the rest of the world, so to speak, in order fulfil his newly-assumed role of filling it with his progeny and conquering it.

Chapter Two, in contrast, focuses on the details of this development of man’s purpose, from just working the soil of the Garden of Eden before he sinned, to being commanded to conquer the entire world after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and being expelled from the Garden of Eden.


1.  See Bereshit 4:2; 4:20-22

2The understanding that Kayin was conceived or born after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden does not follow Rashi (4:1) or the Midrash. However, it is in accordance with other commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bachya, and Radak.