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Adam’s Sin and the Decree of Death

The Torah states that on the day Adam would eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge he would surely die (Genesis 2:17). Yet although he was punished when he sinned, he didn’t die on that day, but lived hundreds of years longer. Am I missing something?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

It’s an excellent question. There are several answers to this, most of which are variations of a single theme. To explain, we need to first have a deeper understanding of Adam’s sin.

Before Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge, they were both spiritually and physically perfect. Man had no Evil Inclination. He had no inner desire for evil. The drive for evil was an external force, embodied in the Serpent, which attempted to lure man to sin. But man himself was wholly pure. His physical side was nothing other than a perfect reflection of his spirit.

As a result, before the Sin, man had the potential to live forever. His body did not contain the decaying influence of the Evil Inclination. His physical side had the same potential as his soul to be wholly perfected and to exist eternally. As the Kabbalists explain, had Adam and Eve passed their test and not eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, they would have afterwards eaten of the Tree of Life – to live eternally with God in Eden.

Once man sinned, however, evil became a part of his psyche. The Tree of Knowledge gave him an intimate knowledge of – and desire for – evil. Man’s evil inclination was no longer an external Serpent, but a part of his very soul. Man became a confused mixture of good and evil, the good only attaining ascendancy after the utmost of struggles. And man would never be fully secure in his spirituality. As high as his soul might strive upwards, his body would drag him down. He would never be entirely free of his physical wants and desirous nature.

As a result, death was a necessary part of man’s existence. Man could now never entirely perfect himself. His body was simply too corrupt for full rectification. It would have to die and decay – only to later be recreated in a higher state at the Resurrection, at which point – if it is worthy – to live forever (Derech Hashem I 3:9).

Based on the above, many of the commentators to the Torah explain that the punishment of death decreed on man did not mean to say Adam would literally die right then, but at that point he would be liable to death (Targum Yonatan, Ramban, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Chizkuni, Radak and many others), or that because of his imperfections death would now slowly overtake him (Malbim, also brought in Ibn Ezra 3:8). He would now be a finite being which would ultimately decay and die. Likewise, in Adam’s decreed punishment God tells him “for you are earth and to the earth will you return” (Genesis 3:19). His body was now corrupt, resembling the earth it derived from. Man was destined die.

Another interesting answer appears in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 19:14). Psalms 90:4 states: “For a thousand years in Your eyes are as yesterday which has passed.” By God’s standards, a “day” is a thousand earth years. Thus, in fact, Adam, who lived till 930, did die on the same “day” he ate of the Tree.

A final suggested answer is that Adam did in fact deserve to die right then, but because he repented God lessened his punishment and he lived much longer (Ibn Ezra 3:8, based on several Talmudic references to Adam’s repentance).

See here for a further discussion of Adam’s sin and its ramifications. See also this section for a much deeper treatment of the topic.

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