Did Adam and Eve have moral culpability in the Garden before they ate from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil? It would seem that they were like small children in that sense, they were amoral--not because they did not care for morality, but because they had no concept of it.

If Adam and Eve had no concept of morality, of right and wrong, how is it fair to punish them for their behavior? Prior to eating the apple, Adam could not have said: "Eve, do not ask me to do that, it would be wrong." He had no idea it would be wrong to eat the apple.

It seems pretty central to morality that the agent must be aware of what he/she is doing for moral blame to fall upon them. If they were morally blame-less for eating the apple, then why the painful punishments?

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    They clearly knew they weren't supposed to eat it. God told them!
    – Double AA
    Jul 6, 2014 at 16:43
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    What does it mean to know you are not supposed to do something if you do not have a concept of good/evil? Are not good/evil directly related to right/wrong? Also, at least explicitly, God only tells Adam, it's merely implied that the information got to Eve. Did Adam have a sense of right/wrong without a sense of good/evil? Jul 6, 2014 at 16:56
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    I have no idea as those aren't well-defined categories. I know he knew not do it.
    – Double AA
    Jul 6, 2014 at 16:56
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    How do you know that? Yes, Adam was instructed by God, but Adam did not have a concept of "disobeying God is bad", until after he ate the apple, correct? Jul 6, 2014 at 16:58
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    This question is discussed by many great thinkers of Judaism, offhand I know of the eMoreh Nevuchim, Radak, Sefer HaIkarim, Nefesh Hachayim, R. Dessler. Hopefully I'll have time to post an answer but I'm putting this comment here so that people search the abovementioned seforim and post answers Jul 6, 2014 at 18:11

3 Answers 3


This question really touches on what the purpose of the Tree of Knowledge was. Why would G-d not want them to eat from a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Isn't that the most important knowledge to have?

In Moreh Nevuchim 1:1 Rambam develops an approach to understanding this (in which he alludes to your question). As I understand his answer, it is basically the following:

Before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam understood moral truths as just that - truths. Just like 1 + 1 = 2 is immutable and is not subject to how you feel about it or any weighing of values, so to "do not disobey G-d" was not a question of right and wrong, it was a question of true and false. "Obey G-d" was a truth. It was objectively grasped by his intellect. In the Rambam's example, it would be silly to apply "good" or "bad" to the statement "the Earth is flat." The intellect differentiates between those. When they ate from the Tree, they chose to allow subjective passions to affect their decisions. This lowered them from their lofty intellectual state of being into a state of being which involved moral decisions, as they had to battle their passions. Their framework shifted from אמת ושקר, true and false, to טוב ורע, good and evil.

So to answer your question, they knew much more than good and bad before they ate - they knew moral decisions as truths. When they ate from the tree, their mode of knowledge shifted - now they knew good and bad, as opposed to true and false. Thus, it is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, not simply the Tree of Knowledge - it brought a very specific type of knowledge.


As to why they sinned, the Rambam addresses this between the lines:

וכאשר חטא ונטה אחרי תאוותיו הדמיונות ותענוגות חושיו הגופניים כמו שאמר כי טוב העץ למאכל וכי תאוה הוא לעיניים

The Rambam describes what the sin was - it was going after his תאוות, choosing his desires over his intellect. Thus he brings the following of the sensual draw of the tree as textual support. Adam had such a thing as desire, and his charge was to not be נוטה (to "lean") towards it. Adam was aware of the concept of sensual pleasure, and he had desires. His charge and his challenge was to ignore it, and to choose to remain "שכלי" - an intellect.

  • @Shokhet it was not taking away the knowledge, it was replacing it - it was a daas of emes and sheker, and became knowledge of tov and ra Jul 6, 2014 at 18:49
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    @curiosfellow daas = "knowledge", emes = "truth", sheker = "falsehood", "tov" = good, "ra" = bad/evil
    – Fred
    Jul 6, 2014 at 19:27
  • @Matt A careful reading of the Moreh addresses that issue. I didn't think this thread was the place for it, but everyone seems to want to know. The Rambam held that they saw right and wrong as true and false, which is more refined than good and bad. At the same time, he was aware of the concept of sensual pleasure, and his charge and his challenge was to ignore it and to choose to remain "שכלי" - an intellect. But he had the awareness of the alternative mode and it's draw - this was the test of the Tree - sensual draw (looked nice, good to eat etc.). Jul 6, 2014 at 23:14
  • @YEZ: My reading of the Moreh (the language isn't very clear to me, but I think I've worked it out) is that before eating the fruit, Adam had the ability to determine objective truth, and also had desires like the desire to eat delicious fruit, but had neither inclination nor ability to determine subjective value statements about 'right' or 'wrong'. The part of the Moreh referenced appears to address only why eating the fruit was a loss, rather than whether blame can be assigned, and I think the original question here goes unanswered by it. You may, of course, disagree.
    – Aesin
    Jul 7, 2014 at 9:14
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    @curiosfellow Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv explained that evil existed in Creation prior to Adam's sin, and that Adam wished to use his purely rational mind to understand the tree and the nature of evil and to thereby rectify Creation. However, the more he contemplated the tree, the more he was influenced by it, until he lost grasp of his true/false paradigm enough that he actually ate from the tree. When he ate from the tree, evil became part of his nature. Thus, he intended to improve Creation but ended up making it worse (DA"H 2:4:3-5).
    – Fred
    Jul 7, 2014 at 22:31

Rabbi David Fohrman goes into the concept of what they knew before and what they "knew" after in his series Serpents of Desire: Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden..

Rabbi Fohrman takes the approach of the Rambam as explained in the answer by @Yez and goes into detail about why it is needed, what it means, and what the implications for us would be. He also connects this tree with the Tree of Life and discusses the necessity of both trees and the reason for the expulsion from Eden.

The entire series is too long to go into, but here are a few questions he deals with.

Imagine a world in which people were pretty much the same as they are now -- they were smart, they could walk, they could talk, they could drive cars and become investment bankers. They were missing only one thing. They didn't know right from wrong.

We have a word for people like that. We call them sociopaths.


This is a very serious, fundamental problem. Didn't Adam and Eve already have the knowledge the tree was supposed to give them? It's the kind of question that you should lose sleep over. For as long as you are stuck with this question, the story of Adam and Eve simply fails to make any sense at all.


Perhaps we've been the victim of faulty premises. We've casually assumed that we knew what kind of knowledge the Tree gave to Adam and Eve: A knowledge of "good and evil," of "right and wrong." But on second thought, just because it's called a "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" doesn't mean that Adam and Eve were ignorant of morality, of right and wrong, beforehand. It just means that they didn't call morality "good and evil." They called it something else.

The approach I am suggesting here is not my own. It in fact is the approach taken by Maimonides, the Rambam. Indeed, in his Guide to the Perplexed, Rambam considers the very same question we have advanced here: Why would God want to withhold a knowledge of good and evil from us? And the answer he gives is this: The tree didn't give us an understanding of right and wrong when we had none before; rather it transformed this understanding from one thing into another. It transformed it into something called a "knowledge of Good and Evil".


I think that the story of Adam and Eve is just a metaphor used to warn the men not to "know."

Think about the apple as the knowledge, the science or the consciousness.

This means that the more you know the more you will suffer, and I think this is just a sad truth. Just think about the terrible things humans have discovered, like atomic bombs or radiation. But God warned them not because knowledge is not useful but because men are not ready for that much, they would use it to harm and not to heal.

The animals have no consciousness and they are not harmful like men....

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    Animals are harmful like men. They will steal from others of their kind, they will kill others of their kind, they will interfere with mates of others of their kind, they will do practically everything to each other of their kind as man will do. It isn't always easy to see the behavior unless you look for it. Then it becomes almost obvious. Jul 7, 2014 at 9:43
  • I think that animals would never destroy the planet, the "garden" that God gave to us. As I wrote, men are not ready for knowledge, they abuse of it.
    – Luca
    Jul 7, 2014 at 11:09
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    Due to incapability rather than limits of morality. They certainly have no qualms about destroying their environments when no natural enemies keep them in check. Various examples exist. Jul 7, 2014 at 11:42
  • I agree with you, humans are themselves animals, but with more consciousness. The point of the discussion is the fact that humans have two choices: 1)to abandon their consciousness like animals to do not suffer anymore 2) (the most difficult) to control their consciousness and struggle against those men who do not or cannot control their consciusness
    – Luca
    Jul 7, 2014 at 12:33
  • That's a much better way to say it, and I can agree. The higher cognitive abilities of humans is what gives rise to considered choices. We can choose not to destroy our environment, while other animals have relatively very little choice in their behavior. I'm not sure that's a particularly good thing (yet), since we seem to have such a difficult time coming to wide agreement on our choices as a species. We might get there. Jul 10, 2014 at 9:29

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