Queen Vashti is only mentioned a few times in the Bible. But her actions opened the way for Esther to become queen and save the Jewish people.
In this article I am only trying to understand Vashti. There are many interesting details in Megillat Esther that are not investigated here.
Who was Vashti in the Bible?
Vashti was the Queen of Persia because she was married to King Ahasuerus, also called Xerxes. Here is how she is first mentioned in the Bible (translation from the Judaica Press Tanach):
9. Also Vashti the queen made a banquet for the women in the royal palace which belonged to king Ahasuerus.
Vashti is one of only 3 women in the Bible who are honored with the title Queen (Hebrew: Malkah).
She is mentioned by name exactly 10 times in the Bible, all of them in the Book of Esther. (I’ve included all of those verses in this article and highlighted Vashti’s name in in bold.)
Also, there are a few times where she is referred to not by name but by her title, “the Queen.”
According to Jewish tradition (Gemara Megillah 10b) Vashti was the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler.
Meaning of the Name Vashti
The name Vashti is from the Persian word “vahista” which means “best.”
It’s not clear in what sense Vashti was “best.” However, perhaps the Gemara is hinting at her “best” quality when it says:
Our Rabbis taught: Four women of exceptional beauty were in the world: Sarah, Rahab, Abigail, and Esther. But according to the opinion that Esther was pale, take out Esther and include Vashti.
According to this Gemara, Vashti was one of the 4 or 5 most beautiful women who have ever lived.
What did King Ahasuerus Order?
Queen Vashti and King Ahasuerus were hosting separate banquets in different parts of the Persian royal palace. Here’s what happened on the 7th day of feasting:
10. On the seventh day, when the heart of the king was merry with wine, he commanded Mehuman, Biztha, Harbonah, Bigtha, and Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs who served in the presence of Ahasuerus the king,
11. To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the royal crown, to show the people and the princes her beauty; for she was beautiful to look on.
From verse 11 we read that the king wanted to show off Vashti’s beauty.
According to the Gemara (Megillah 12b), the king asked the men at his banquet if they wanted to see Vashti’s beauty. They replied they did, but only if she was naked.
The Gemara then comments that Vashti was being treated the same way she had treated others (measure for measure). Vashti forced her Jewish servants / slaves to work for her on Shabbat while they were naked. Now the king was demanding that she display herself naked to the male crowd.
Why did Vashti Refuse the King?
Queen Vashti did not merely ignore the king’s request, but she actively refused to come to him.
12. But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command by his eunuchs; and the king was very angry, and his anger burned in him.
But why did she refuse the king’s order? Perhaps the simple answer is that Vashti was a modest woman and opposed to displaying herself in public.
The Jewish sages explain that Vashti was a wicked woman and not modest. In other words, she was willing to appear naked in public. However, they offer two explanations for why Vashti refused the King (Megillah 12b):
- She suddenly broke out with the skin affliction tzara’at.
- The angel Gabriel attached a tail to her.
Both of these explanations are based on the idea that her body changed in a way that made her embarrassed to appear naked in public.
The skin affliction tzara’at is often (incorrectly) translated as leprosy. I discuss details about the affliction in Parshat Tazria.
There is more to say about Gabriel attaching a tail to Vashti, but it’s rather detailed so I will save it for the end of this article.
What Happened to Vashti?
Queen Vashti’s refusal to appear before King Ahasuerus at his banquet did not please her husband.
In fact, the king’s anger boiled within him (see above verse 1:12). An absolute monarch cannot bear to be insulted and belittled in this way.
King Ahasuerus consulted with his closest advisors to decide what he should do.
15. What shall we do to the queen Vashti according to law, because she has not performed the command of the king Ahasuerus by the eunuchs?
16. And Memucan answered in the presence of the king and the princes, Vashti, the queen, has wronged not only the king, but also all the princes, and all the people who are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus.
17. For this deed of the queen shall be known to all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported that the king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought to his presence, but she came not.
Memucan suggested that Vashti’s action could cause women throughout the kingdom to disobey their husbands.
He advised the king that the only way to stave off a revolt was to get rid of Vashti.
19. If it please the king, let a royal command be issued by him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, so that it can not be altered, that Vashti is to come no more to the presence of king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. …
21. And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan;
To say it plainly, Memucan’s advice, which King Ahasuerus acted on, was to execute Vashti and choose a new queen.
Esther Replaces Vashti
However, it turned out that King Ahasuerus was actually fond of Vashti.
1. After these things, when the anger of king Ahasuerus was appeased, he remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her.
It’s possible, that he started thinking that he had made a mistake by executing Vashti.
Note the passive language in the above verse: “… what was decreed against her.” It doesn’t say: “… what he, King Ahasuerus, decreed against her.”
This language indicates that King Ahasuerus was not taking personal responsibility for executing to Vashti. Perhaps he was also thinking of punishing those advisors who suggested the execution.
That may be why the next verses state:
2. Then said the king’s servants who ministered to him, Let young virgins of good presence be sought for the king;
3. And let the king appoint officials in all the provinces of his kingdom, that they may gather together all the young virgins of good presence to Shushan the capital, to the harem, to the custody of Hege, the king’s eunuch, keeper of the women; and let their ointments be given them;
4. And let the girl which pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti. And the matter pleased the king; and he did so.
The entire kingdom became involved in an international contest to find a beautiful virgin to be chosen as queen.
17. And the king loved Esther above all the other women, and she found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.
Though she didn’t want the position (see verses 2:5 – 8 and 2:15), Esther was chosen to become the new queen.
The Angel Gabriel and Vashti’s Tail
As mentioned above, the second explanation for Vashti’s refusal was because the angel Gabriel attached a tail to her.
Why Gabriel and why a tail?
The Angel Gabriel
Gabriel is mentioned by name two times in the Bible – Daniel 8:16 and 9:21.
Both times he is commanded by God to explain a vision to Daniel.
According to Jewish tradition, the angel Gabriel plays an important role in defending the Jewish people.
In the Gemara (Yoma 77a) he is portrayed as doing things to lessen the punishment that the Jewish people deserved and pleading with God to save them.
So we see, his action here is very much in keeping with that role.
Gabriel’s act of adding a blemish to Vashti seems small. However, his act set in motion a series of events. Four years after Vashti’s execution, Esther became queen. Then 5 years after that, in the 12th year of King Ahasuerus, Esther was able to reveal Haman’s evil plot and save the Jewish people in Persia.
Why did Gabriel attach a tail to Vashti? In other words, why a tail and not a different blemish?
The Hebrew word translated as “tail” is “zanav” (root letters: zayin-nun-beit).
The noun “zanav” is often translated as tail. However, it can also be translated as “attachment, projection, protrusion, or abnormal growth.”
We could accept that zanav means a tail. However, depending on it’s length and color, a tail can be hidden from view. For example, Vashti could have tucked it between her legs.
If we understand zanav in the broader sense of attachment or protrusion, Gabriel could have attached something to her that could not be easily hidden. For example, a third breast.
As is common with Hebrew words, the root letters zayin-nun-beit also occur in the Bible as a verb. Here is one of the few places it occurs:
17. Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt;
18. How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God.
The words “and struck at your rear” are the translation of “vayzaneiv” which is from the root zayin-nun-beit.
Why didn’t the verse just say that Amalek killed some of the Jews who were weak and straggling behind the rest of the people?
Rashi, based on Midrash Tanchumah (Ki Teitzei 10), explains that Amalek killed some of the stragglers then mutilated their bodies by cutting off their male organs and throwing them up into the air. It’s as if they were mocking God and circumcision by their actions.
I think that the use of the root zayin-nun-beit in the Gemara and in Deuteronomy can give us another idea as to what happened to Vashti.
My suggestion is the “zanav” that Gabriel attached to Vashti was a male organ that could not be hidden and would embarrass her to be seen naked in public.