The book of Esther begins with a description of the Persian King Ahasuerus celebrating with the leading men of his kingdom. After seven days of feasting and drinking, the king calls Queen Vashti to appear before him. The text says he calls her “in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at” (Esther 1:11). But Queen Vashti refuses and “then the king became furious and burned with anger” (verse 12). One of the King’s ministers advises him to make an example of her, lest the women of the kingdom learn of her behavior and begin refusing their husbands demands. Exit Queen Vashti.
Though the text doesn’t explain why Vashti refused to appear, a variety of theories have been suggested. According to Esther 1:11, Queen Vashti was told to appear “wearing her royal crown,” so one rabbinic tradition interprets this as the king’s instruction to wear only her royal crown—in other words, to appear naked. According to that tradition, Queen Vashti refused because she did not want to be put on display. This view is not found in the biblical text, nor is it supported by history.
However, it is likely that Vashti refused to appear because she would have been humiliated in some way. Think about it: the king and his men had been feasting and drinking for seven days. How noble could their intentions have been in calling her to the party? One can readily assume that her attendance at the feast was sought to entertain the men in some way. So she said NO!
In a 2013 post, Isabel Kaplan makes a good case for Vashti. She points out that, “rabbinic scholars were eager to prove that Vashti was wicked, conceited and deserved her fate. They asserted some pretty ridiculous reasons for her eventual demise.” However, these unflattering descriptions of Vashti are not found in the Book of Esther, but come from later commentary. Kaplan continues explaining that Talmudic scholars came up with a host of theories and explanations about Vashti and her fate – theories that ranged from unfounded to absurd: from leprosy to the sudden growth of a tail.
“These theories,” writes Kaplan,” are based on the assumption that Vashti did not refuse the king’s summons because of her principles and dignity, but rather because she was ashamed of her body because of some deformity.” Besides being highly improbable, the Megillah offers no evidence to support this; on the contrary, in it, Vashti is described as beautiful.
Perhaps for Esther to rise, Vashti must first fall, and if Vashti’s fall was deserved and justified, the story is simplified. Then we can ignore poor Queen Vashti and can move on with the story and its primary focus—saving of the Jews.
Kaplan asks isn’t the Purim story, the town of Shushan and even our own world big enough for two or more female heroes? I too feel that it is high time that Vashti “receives the appreciation and respect that she deserves, as a woman who said ‘No.’ As Kaplan says, let’s celebrate Vashti for having the courage to stand up to a drunken, salacious and demanding king, just as we celebrate Esther for persuading that same drunken king to free the Jews.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.