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Megillah 12

The many faces of Vashti.

Today’s daf paints the heroes and villains of Esther in larger-than-life brushstrokes — super-saints and super-villains — with rabbis anachronistically popping up in the king’s palace, commenting on the misbehavior of the megillah characters and opining about what they would have done had they been there. One of the many issues that fires their imagination is Queen Vashti, Ahasuerus’ first queen, banished for refusing to dance at one of his lavish blowouts. Was she an undeserving victim of arbitrary, alcohol-fueled cruelty? Or was she a deserving and righteous woman shunted aside to make room for our heroine as the new queen?

Alas, poor Vashti, the sages of our page take a hatchet to her character. To begin, they note that, in their experience, Babylonian and Persian noblewomen are seldom modest or righteous. They shake their heads over this proverb:

Folks say: He misbehaves with pumpkins and his wife with zucchinis.

Or, as we might say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. We should expect Vashti to be no better than Ahasuerus.

To the rabbis, the Persian royal court looks suspiciously like Hollywood: anyone with money, power and good looks does precisely as they please, and the only problem is getting caught. Vashti, exiled, perhaps executed, for refusing to dance for her husband, must have deserved her fate. They gleefully make Vashti the caricature of every pretty Persian girl who ever bullied their daughter. And even in their extremes of mirth (and, dare I say it, nastiness?) they are not shy about placing the blame squarely on the Persian men for objectifying their women:

When the Jewish people eat and drink, they begin with talking Torah and words of praise. But the nations of the world, when they eat and drink, they begin only with talking trash. 

So too, at the feast of that wicked man (Ahasuerus) some said: Median women are the loveliest. Others said: Persian women are the loveliest. Ahasuerus said to them: The vessel that I use (what a way to describe his wife!) is neither Median nor Persian, but rather Chaldean. Do you wish to see her? They said to him: Indeed, only she should be naked!

Naked!? Thought you missed that detail in the text? Esther records the king’s command “bring Vashti the Queen wearing a royal crown” (Esther 1:11) and the rabbis take this text at its literal word — wearing a crown and nothing else! Take that, you trashy Persian prom queen — aren’t you sorry you called our rabbi’s daughters frumpy? (See Esther Rabbah 5:3 where this bullying of Jewish women is made explicit.)

Some among the sages cannot even imagine how a beautiful, wealthy and popular daughter of the ruling class could ever come to grief surrounded by her posse of twittering golden girls and her rich sugar daddy of a man; they bring in the archangel Gabriel to deliver supernatural comeuppance to the evil queen:

She was shameless … so what is the reason she did not come (and shake what the good Lord gave her)?

Said Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina: This teaches that she broke out in leprosy.

A beraita (early teaching) states: Gabriel came and fashioned her a tail.

The Babylonian Talmud is a composition of Jews in exile: Its stories sometimes reflect the casual humiliations of antisemitism practiced on the sages by their non-Jewish neighbors. Megillah 12, it seems, tries to even the score in a land where Jewish women and girls may well have been fair game for harassment, bullying and violence. The Babylonian rabbis gleefully recount tales of the pockmarked and beastly Vashti to avenge the humiliation of their sisters, wives and daughters in their adopted hometown. If Babylonian midwives could terrorize their listeners with boasts of outrageous cruelty to Jewish patients (see Avodah Zarah 26a:7-8), our sages could at least titillate their listeners with equally outrageous scenes of well-earned comeuppance. 

This teaches that the wicked Vashti would take the daughters of Israel, and strip them naked, and make them work on Shabbat … as it is written: “Ahaseurus remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her” (Esther 2:1). For just as she had done (with the Jewish maids), so it was decreed upon her.

The Sephardic commentator Me’am Loez explains that since Vashti’s antisemitic labor policies stripped the dignity from the Sabbath Queen (Shabbat 119a), it was only fitting that, on the seventh day, she was stripped of her own crown.

The Babylonian rabbis’ contemporaries in the land of Israel take a much more sympathetic (or at least complicated) view of Vashti. Midrash Esther Rabbah, composed in the land of Israel, paints her as a noble queen, a tragic heroine whose destiny leaves her a martyr to the sins of her grandfathers. What was this unfortunate lineage? Megillah 10b and Esther Rabbah Petichta 11 both name Vashti as the last descendant of the bloody Nebuchadnedzar of Babylon, destroyer of Jerusalem, and granddaughter of Belshazzar, the corrupt last king of Babylon, for whom Daniel read “the writing on the wall” (Daniel 5). As a small child, these rabbis conjecture, Vashti was the only survivor of the massacre perpetrated by the welcome usurper Darius (Daryavesh) the Mede; later midrashim describe how the new king saved the granddaughter of his enemy because she was so pretty and charming, and used her to secure his own legacy by marrying her to one of his most faithful vassals, a promising young military man named Xerxes (Ahasuerus in Hebrew). Vashti, in the eyes of the Palestinian rabbis, is the only legitimate queen in a palace full of thugs — though she is also descended from sworn enemies of Israel.

Despite the sins of her ancestors, the Vashti of Midrash Esther Rabbah is noble and politically savvy. Recognizing her husband’s carefully staged drunken act as the military coup that it is — a plan to shift the ruling power in the kingdom from her shoulders to his — she appeals to the last corroded fragments of the king’s soul:

She sent and said to him words that touched his heart. She said to him: “If they see that I am lovely, they will look over ways to have me by assassinating you. And if they see that I am ugly, you will be shamed on my account.” She hinted subtly to him (that he was impugning his own masculinity), but he did not understand her subtlety; she was pricking him but he was not pricked.

She sent again and said to him: “When you were only the stable master of my father’s house, you learned to call in naked prostitutes for yourself, and now that you have come into kingship, you have not changed from your disgusting ways.” She hinted subtly to him (that betraying his lowly origins was a poor way to begin a coup d’etat), but he did not understand her subtlety; she was pricking him but he was not pricked. 

She sent for a last time and said to him: “Even the highest criminals of my father’s house were not judged naked!” (Esther Rabbah 3:14)

Alas, the beautiful and intelligent queen is subject to Isaiah’s curse on the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar and all his progeny:

“For I will rise up against them, says the Lord of Hosts, and cut off from Babylonia name and remnant, and offspring, and posterity, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 14:22)

If God has sworn to do away with the last living descendants of this wicked imperialist, Vashti cannot but fall. This cruel destiny is more than the rabbis of Palestine can bear, so they give the heretofore virtuous Vashti the chance to stand on her own. Midrash Panim Acherim on Esther Rabbah describes the newly crowned Ahasuerus toying with the idea of letting those pesky Hebrews go back to Judea and rebuild their Temple on the barren rock once called Jerusalem.

But Vashti cannot dissociate her own identity from the imperial conquerors who sired her, and she seals her doom with her own lips, laughing, “How dare you build up what my noble ancestors worked so hard to destroy?” Now Vashti has at least rightly earned her place as the last descendant of Nebuchadnezzar who brought death and exile to God’s chosen people: Despite her manifold virtues and her worthiness to be queen, she herself will suffer both fates.

Read all of Megillah 12 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 24th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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