The article is part of the entry “Vashti”, written by the author for the Encyclopedia, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Eds. Paula E. Hyman and Dalia Ofer, Shalvi Publishing Ltd. Jerusalem 2006 (CD-Rom).
Vashti’s role in Megilat Esther is short and ends with the first chapter of the book. She is presented as a high-ranking woman who holds a banquet of her own, for the women. Vashti disobeys the drunken King Ahasuerus when he summons her to appear at his banquet with her roya1 crown upon her head, so that he can show off her beauty. But by disobeying the king’s order she insults him in front of all his company, and she is punished by being banished from the palace – and from the story.
Vashti is a secondary character in the Book of Esther who has to clear the way so that the main character, Esther, can appear on stage. The cruel and hasty behavior of Ahasuerus towards Vashti explains things that take place in the continuation of the story. For example: why Esther is afraid to enter the king’s inner court without having been summoned, or Ahasuerus’s hasty decision to kill Haman. In rabbinic literature Vashti is presented in various guises. Her character is disguised differently by Babylonian sources and Israeli sources.
Vashti As Seen By the Babylonian Rabbis
The Babylonian Rabbis tend to cast Vashti in an extremely negative light, as wicked, a Jew-hater and wanton. Ravah, a Babylonian rabbi from the fourth generation, comments on Esth. 1:9: “In addition, Queen Vashti gave a banquet for women, in the royal palace of King Ahasuerus” that Vashti held her banquet in the royal palace of King Ahasuerus, a place meant for men, and not in the natural venue for such an event, the harem. He learns from this that Vashti had licentious intent when she organized her banquet, just like her husband Ahasuerus (who later summoned her to appear before the men). The Rabbis cite the immoral intent of each as an example of the popular saying, “He with gourds and his wife with cucumbers,” in other words, the husband and the wife are alike, and both act in the same manner (BT Megillah 12a–b).
Esth. 1:10 records: “On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine,” on which Ravah observes that the seventh day of Ahasuerus’s banquet was also the seventh day of the week, that is, the Sabbath. When the Israelites eat and drink on the Sabbath, they utter words of Torah and praises to God. But when the non-Jewish peoples eat and drink on this day, they begin with indecent talk. And so it was at the banquet of Ahasuerus, where an argument erupted among the men. Some said: “The Median women are the fairest,” while others claimed: “Persian women are the fairest.” Ahasuerus replied to them: “The vessel that I use [that is, his wife] is neither Median nor Persian, but Chaldean (= Babylonian)—do you want to see her?” They told him, “Yes, but only if she is naked.” This demand is derived from Esth. 1:11: “to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem”—wearing only a royal diadem, without any other clothes on her body (BT Megillah 12b).
These Rabbis depict Vashti as a wanton adulteress, leading us to ask why, if this was the case, she refused to appear at the men’s feast. These Rabbis maintain that Vashti actually wanted to appear at Ahasuerus’ lewd party. Her plans were upset when leprosy erupted over her entire body, so that she could not make an appearance before all the guests. According to another tradition, the angel Gabriel came and fixed a tail to her (BT Megillah loc. cit.). God intervened in various ways in order to prevent Vashti from heeding Ahasuerus. Thus He directed matters so that Vashti would be deposed and Esther would reign in her stead.
In the view of the Babylonian Rabbis, Vashti’s punishment was merited ( middah ke-neged middah : “measure for measure”): as she did to Jewish women, so it was decreed against her. The wicked Vashti would bring Jewish women, strip them naked and order them to perform work on the Sabbath. Consequently, she was punished by being commanded to appear in the nude at the banquet of Ahasuerus, on a Sabbath day (BT Megillah loc. cit.).
This collection of midrashim presents Vashti in a very negative light. The adverse attitude of the Rabbis in Babylonia to Vashti might possibly have resulted from the fact that Vashti was Babylonian, and for the Rabbis she represented the local Babylonian women, that they wanted to present as promiscuous and Jew-haters (see BT Kiddushin 72a). Emphasizing their negative traits probably aided in erecting barriers between the Jews living in Babylonia and the local Gentile women.
Vashti As Seen By The Rabbis Of Erez Israel
In contrast to the negative depiction of Vashti by the Babylonian Rabbis, their counterparts in Erez Israel portrayed her in a positive manner.
Vashti was a scion of a royal dynasty and deported herself with the proper honor and nobility. The midrash relates that when Ahasuerus sent his important ministers to bring Vashti, she sent emissaries back to him three times, in an attempt to persuade him to withdraw his demand. She sent him messages to which he would be receptive. She told him: “If they see me and think me beautiful, they will want to lie with me, and they will kill you. And if they see me and think me ugly, you will be disgraced because of me.” She hinted to him, but he did not take the hint; she aimed her barb at him, but he was not stung. She sent a message to him: “You were my father’s steward, and you were accustomed to have naked harlots come before you. Now that you have become king, you have not mended your degraded ways!” She hinted to him, but he did not take the hint; she aimed her barb at him, but he was not stung. She sent a message to him: “You want me to come naked—even my father, when he judged litigants in a trial, would not judge them when they were naked” Esth. Rabbah 3:14).
Vashti in this midrash is blessed with wisdom. She cleverly seeks different ways by which to persuade Ahasuerus to withdraw his request. First she appeals to logic by setting forth all the possible scenarios that might result from his demand, all of which are to his disadvantage. Then she addresses his sense of honor and self-respect, demanding that he act as is fitting for a king. Finally, she appeals to his compassion, and asks that he not insist upon her appearing naked before all his guests. By means of her messengers, Vashti hints to her husband that he does not consider the consequences of his actions and that he wields the scepter only because of his marriage to her; accordingly, it is not appropriate that he order her to do something against her will. The reader sees Ahasuerus, in contrast with Vashti, as a ruler who acts rashly and does not think even one single step ahead. The hints that his wife sends Ahasuerus merely bounce off the thick-skinned king. Even in his palace his behavior is inappropriate and he continues to act in a disgraceful manner, like a steward.
Despite the positive depiction of Vashti by the Eretz Israel Rabbis, they find a flaw in her, for which she is punished by God and is deposed. They assert that Ahasuerus wanted to rebuilt the Temple , but Vashti stayed his hand. She told him: “You wish to rebuild what my forefathers destroyed?” She was therefore punished by the loss of her crown ( Esth. Rabbah loc. cit.). For the Rabbis of Eretz Israel, Vashti apparently represented the Babylonian rule that laid waste to the Temple.
To summarize, Vashti appears in various guises in rabbinic literature. By using her character, the Rabbis wanted to convey a message and educate their people. The Rabbis in Babylonia wanted to erect barriers between the Jews living in Babylonia and the local promiscuous Gentile women. The Rabbis of Ere z Israel used Vashti’s character differently. For them, she was the descendant of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler who laid waste to the Temple. Vashti’s replacement by Esther symbolized the reversal that occurs in the Book of Esther and the hope that the ravagers of the Temple would receive their punishment while the people of Israel would return to its former glory.
Dr. Tamar Kadari is a lecturer in Midrash at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
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Art Credit: Finding Home #89, Siona Benjamin