What the Rabbis say… concerning Adam’s sin

Messianic Good News - What the Rabbis say… concerning Adam’s sinWhat consequence did Adam’s sin have for the human race?  Did our relationship with God change fundamentally, as a result? If so, can we ever return to our original condition, or reverse the consequence through our own efforts? Judaism and Christianity give different answers to these questions.

Most rabbis today teach that Adam’s sin brought no more than physical death (mortality) into the world, and apart from this has no further consequence for his descendants.[1] It follows that the death sentence of Genesis chapter two is that of physical death:

‘And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, You may freely eat of every tree in the garden, but you shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:16-17)

A difficulty arises from the fact that death would flow “in the day that thou shalt eat of it” – while Adam lived a further 930 years after that day. This is then explained by suggesting that Adam became mortal the moment he sinned, while the actual death followed later.

“Those who maintain that Adam was condemned to corporeal death, generally solve [the difficulty] in two ways. First: That where it says, ‘On the day of thou eating thereof, dying, thou shalt die,’ is to be understood ‘from that day thou shalt become mortal,’ because, previously, Adam was endowed with eternal life, either by virtue of the tree of life, or by the immediate influence of divine grace, but the moment he sinned he forfeited that advantage, and from immortal become mortal … Second: by ‘the day,’ they understand the term to imply ‘a day of the LORD’, which, according to the Psalmist, consists of 1000 years (Psalms 90:4); and this was actually the case, for he died within that period.”   (Conciliator of R. Manasseh ben Israel, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 28.)

By whatever means physical death is understood from the text, most rabbis firmly reject the Christian teaching that Adam’s sin affected his and his descendants’ spiritual condition. Ben Zion Bokser, following Kook, and others tend to trivialize Adam’s act, so as to downplay the consequence. According to Ben Zion Bokser:

“Christian interpreters, allying themselves with the literal sense of the story of the garden of Eden generally find there a doctrine indicative of a fatalistic depravation. The sin of Adam in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is understood as a contamination of the entire human race after him, for all generations to follow. This fatalism is absent from the Jewish view … Man has the strength to fight and conquer temptation and to become always more acceptable to God … According to the biblical narration, the sin of Adam does not derive from a substantial impulse of his own nature, but from accidental causes, from a conspiracy against him on the part of an eternal tempter. As Rabbi Kook explains, ‘It is in accord with reason that a mistake caused by accidental circumstances be susceptible of reparation, by virtue of which man can definitively re-attain his elevated position.’” [2]

If, contrary to these views, the “death” spoken of in the second chapter of Genesis were spiritual (i.e. fundamentally altering Man’s relation to his Creator), it follows according to Kook and Bokser’s way of reasoning that Man is incapable of repairing his mistake – in other words, of redeeming himself.  And if Man were thus incapable of redeeming himself, a Redeemer in the nature of the Christian Jesus would then be necessary. Here is then where the difference arises between the two religions, in their divergent views on the route Man must take for his perfection or restoration.

Can the rabbinic view stand in light of Scripture?

(1) Did Adam “acquire mortality the moment he sinned?”

Apart from the difficulty inherent to this proposition, namely that an immortal being can become mortal, it is clear from a later passage in Genesis that Man was not immortal to start with, but created rather with the potential to obtain immortality:

‘And the LORD God said, Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever, therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he had been taken. And He drove out the man. And He placed cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.’  (Genesis 3:22-24)

This passage also teaches that Man will have to “eat from the Tree of Life” in order to achieve immortality – an unresolved mystery in Judaism as the Tree never reappears in the Hebrew scriptures, after it was deliberately concealed from Adam. [3]

(2) Did Adam’s sin affect his spiritual condition?

Sin separates from God (Isaiah 59:2), and the natural harmony that existed initially between Man and the Creator God who made him prince and ruler over the world, was apparently lost. After his sin, Adam became aware of his nakedness (Gen. 3:7) – marking his shift from a God-conscious to a self-conscious being. Man was henceforth more intent on self-realization than ‘God-realization’, so that devotion to God must now come at the cost of self-sacrifice and discipline.

The knowledge of good and evil made Adam ‘like God’ (Gen. 3:5,22), in an illegitimate way.[4]  Man could now judge independently from God between competing desires, competing priorities, and alternative notions of ‘good’. Man had become morally independent from God and would henceforth rule the world according to his own ideas and judgments, more than God’s. Those who sought after God, would henceforth acquire knowledge of His will by learning rather than natural intuition.

Man’s judgments would become increasingly diverse and incompatible. The disharmony that resulted between Man and God, would also arise between man and man. The achievement of individual or sectarian notions of ‘good’ becomes a competitive act which naturally requires that the contrary ambitions of others be suppressed or subverted.

(3) Does Adam’s sin affect all future generations of humanity?

If Adam’s sin had no effect or consequence for his descendants, then everyone should be born in Paradise, with access to the Tree of Life, and only forfeit these once we commit our first sin. This is not the case.

The Christian doctrine of original sin has had many interpretations,[5] but is essentially this: (1) that all of mankind throughout its generations share in the consequence of Adam’s sin, (2) that the nature of man, particularly his spiritual condition, is fundamentally altered by the knowledge of good and evil, which we get from Adam, and (3) that humanity remains to this day vitally separated from God.

This view is not unique to Christianity.

“There are others [Jewish authorities] who … understand both corporeal and spiritual death [from Genesis ch. 2]. R. Joseph Albo was of this opinion; and those who hold it say, that on the day Adam sinned, he immediately became liable to death, and was also banished from the divine grace and glory [which he had formerly enjoyed].” (Conciliation of R. Manasseh ben Israel, ibid.)

Echoes of this are found in the teachings of Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov [1772-1810]:

“From the time the serpent caused Eve to sin by eating from the tree of knowledge, earthiness descended into the world. The serpent was cursed with the curse of “and dust you will eat all the days of your life”, and together with him human beings fell to the state of dust, despondency and heaviness. People lost the vitality of their lives and death was decreed upon them.” [6]

 (4) Is man capable of rectifying his error?

Is Man’s condition – in Rabbi Kook’s terminology – a circumstantial setback from which he can recover?

Significantly, Man’s earliest attempt at self-correction, namely the fig leaves that Adam sowed as a cover for his nakedness, was ineffective and rejected by God. In place of it, it is written:

‘The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.’ (Gen. 3:21)

This suggests – from the time of the first sin – that it would be God’s effort and not Man’s that would restore him from his fallen state.

According to R. Ovadiah ben Jacov Sforno (cited in the Artscroll Tanach series), “He [God] also did not exile them naked lest they dress themselves as a result of their own efforts and interpret the feat as proof of an added attainment.”

The early history of Man concludes in irredeemable wickedness, which takes the flood to remedy, and God makes a fresh start with the descendents of Noah. The history of Israel follows the same pattern as before – in the wilderness, then in the time of the judges, and finally in the kingdom:

‘The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.’ (2 Chronicles 36:15-16)

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures – both from history and prophecy – the contrast is evident between Man’s failure to recover his communion with God, or succeed without Him, on the one hand, and God’s readiness on the other hand, to intervene and save him.

“This is what the LORD says: `Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing  …  But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,’ declares the LORD”  (Jeremiah 30: 12,17)

“Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make … their feet rush into sin …”  But, the LORD’s “own arm worked salvation for Him … ‘the Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the LORD.” (Isaiah 59:6-20)

The prophet Ezekiel saw the whole house of Israel as dry bones which could not be revived except by the Word of Life and a fresh impartation of God’s Spirit (Ezekiel 37).

The essense of Sabbath observance, keeping the Day that was given to preserve Man in his fallen state, is that Man shall cease from all his work. Not by his efforts, then, but by ceasing from them, does Man “restore the world unto God,” as certain rabbis have said. [7]

The hope of Israel culminates in this, namely the promise that God will bring about a final, absolute restoration in the end, by His own design and effort. The consequence of Adam’s sin will be reversed, man will become a God-conscious creature once more, and able to realize God rather than self, in his God-given mastery over creation.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.     (Psalm 130:7-8)


Is the Torah the Tree of Life? This question is considered

in Part 2 of this discussion.


[1] This is one of the interpretations in the Bereshit Raba, namely that מות תמות, in the Hebrew, signifies “death to Adam and death to his descendents … for Adam not only brought death upon himself, but upon the whole human race”. Conciliator of R. Manassah ben Israel, vol. 1, p. 28. Hermon Press, New York.

[2] Ben Zion Bokser, Il Giudaismo (Ed. II Mulino, 1969), pp. 167-68.

[3] Solomon seems to use the term allegorically in three different applications in the Book of Proverbs. Cf. 3:18, 11:30, 13:12 & 15:4. According to New Testament claims – Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed himself to be the Tree of Life: “But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6: 50-51)

[4] “Man has actually made his own something that was once exclusively God’s” , Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, James Hastings, ed., vol. 4, p. 702, under “Fall”.

[5] For an overview, see the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics under “original sin”, vol. 9, pp. 558 – 564.

[6] בשמחה יוצאים מהעבירות (Through joy we escape from sins), http://www.breslev.org/pages.php?subaction=showfull&id=1372843158&ucat=36. With thanks to Michael Korn for his translation from the Hebrew.

[7]  Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, vol. 14, p. 566.