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The Tail of Vashti

The Tail of Vashti

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When I was sixteen, I went to Israel for two months and gained about twenty pounds. I had been thin, even skinny, my whole life and never gave my weight a second thought. Suddenly, I found myself feeling self-conscious about my weight for the first time. For the next four years, from high school graduation through my first two years of college, I suffered from body image problems. My weight yo-yoed as I tried to control my eating habits with various diets, not to mention the affirmations I needed from others in order to feel attractive.

When I felt thinner, I would dress accordingly

When I felt thinner, I would dress accordingly: tighter, more revealing clothes. When I felt heavier, my looser, less alluring clothing came out of the closet. While my body may have been more covered-up during those times, was I necessarily dressing more modestly? What was the motivation behind each of these wardrobes?

In the beginning of the story of Esther, we are told of the lavish separate parties the Persian king Ahasuerus and his wife Vashti gave for the men and women of their kingdom. In his drunken revelry, Ahasuerus decides Vashti should be paraded in front of the men in her royal crown (and nothing else, according to the rabbis of Siftei Chachamim!). She refused and was subsequently dethroned. According to the rabbis, Vashti was not known for her modesty. What led her to reject the order of the king? The Megillah tells us she was a beautiful woman of beautiful form; what did she have to hide?

The Midrash gives a surprising explanation. Apparently, Vashti grew a tail and was embarrassed about her unusual appendage! While this Midrash is enjoyed by elementary students and creates nice cartoons for animated Megillahs, it is a bit hard for an adult to digest.

In a story where G‑d is not mentioned and there are no overt miracles, why would something as fantastic as a tail grow out of a woman's body? The Maharal of Prague provides a fascinating explanation. He explains that this Midrash does not need to be taken at face value; The tail could represent an extra heaviness added to her body which sapped her energy and added weight. Today we use the expression of a "spare tire" to imply a flabby stomach. What if the tail implied that Vashti had put on a few extra pounds and would not put her less than perfect body on display for public view? If she had been working out in the gym instead of indulging at her party, would she have willingly submitted to her husband's demand? If this were the motivation behind her refusal, does this constitute modesty?

I was learning to appreciate the importance of inner beauty

The next time I was in Israel was four years later for my junior year of college. I quickly submerged myself in all aspects of Israeli life, even adjusting my diet to a more European way of eating. I was also doing a lot more walking given the distance between my dorm and the college campus. To my surprise, I quickly shed all the weight I had gained from my last stay in the Holy Land. I was my dream weight at the prime of my dating life! Ironically, this was also the year that I was nurturing my religious Jewish identity. As much as the secular world might have been telling me to flaunt my newly svelte figure, I was internalizing Jewish values of modesty.

I was learning to appreciate the importance of inner beauty. I actually gave away all of my clothes that no longer fit with my new standards of dress. My choice of wardrobe no longer depended on the external factor of my outward appearance. Rather, I began to dress in a way that reflected the newfound internal dignity I had discovered. I still cared about my appearance, but I wasn't dressing to hide flaws or to flaunt perfections. My motivation was internal; my clothes represented my inner values of modesty. As I think back on this personal transformation, it makes perfect sense that I met the man who would become my husband that year, rather than merely dating a random string of boyfriends.

When we are first introduced to Esther in the Megillah, her beauty is described in more detail than Vashti's. In addition to having a "beautiful appearance," Esther also has a "beautiful form." While the deeper meaning of the Purim story tends to gets lost in piles of tulle and satin as little girls dress up as the "beautiful queen Esther," the Megillah makes no further mention of Esther's physical appearance. Even during the "beauty contest" episode in which King Ahasuerus must choose the most beautiful woman in the land, we are told that Esther was chosen on account of her grace and kindness; there is no mention of her beauty!

Esther was chosen on account of her grace and kindness; there is no mention of her beauty

The rabbis elaborate with several midrashim that actually downplay her physical beauty. They tell us that Esther was between the ages of thirty-five and eighty-five, average height, and of greenish complexion. This is all negated by what the rabbis refer to as a "thread of kindness" that ran through her being. The miracle appears to be an inside-out beauty contest! The most externally beautiful women were no competition for Esther's inner radiance. This is just one instance in which the Megillah topples our assumptions about classic fairytale storylines. The princesses we grew up with who were always chosen for their physical beauty and always needed to be saved by a prince were no match for our greenish Esther who saves the entire Jewish people by sheer force of personality!

When Esther must approach the king in order to stop the mass murder of the Jews after not being summoned for ninety days, we are told that she was dressed in "royalty." The rabbis ask why it does not say "royal clothing" which would make more literary sense. They answer that this is an expression of divine inspiration, prophesy. Her outer clothing was secondary to the divine sprit that enveloped her being. Whether Esther was actually beautiful or not is irrelevant. Without her inner dignity and values, she never would have been able to complete her divinely mandated mission. Vashti's beauty was fleeting, tarnished by a few extra pounds and lethargy. Esther's beauty is eternal, continuing to inspire strong Jewish women throughout the ages.

Stacey Goldman teaches Torah in the Philadelphia area while raising a houseful of boys.
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Anonymous Man Israel February 27, 2015

The Rabbis' comments are not mere spiritual propaganda I have often been attracted to women who radiated a certain grace (I'm not sure that's the most accurate word, but you get my meaning), even though physically they were not all that attractive. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn February 26, 2015

Thank you Thank you for teaching me this valuable lesson on modesty.
When a person is modest, their inner values and character are revealed.
For Esther, this revealed her beautiful inner essence.

For Vashti, covering up would not have helped her. She was rotten inside and out.
Even when she covered up, she did so immodestly. According to our teachings, she was the original Queen of Mean. Reply

Bonita Bastarache (Raymond her mentor) NB. Canada February 25, 2015

Vashti's refusal........ Here, in my opinion , is the answer in a nutshell?....she had an " authority problem".... Husbands love your wives .........and wives submit to your husbands in all things....besides this, it was G-d's will to rid of Queen Vashti .. so Esther could be chosen "for such a time as this"...to save alive the Jewish's people,accordingly to the Torah. why? add more than what is mentioned? Shalom. Reply

David Plymouth, Mass, USA February 24, 2015

Commentaries not to be taken seriously This fine story that the author, Ms Goldman has given us is a good example of why YHVH said twice in Deuteronomy not to add to and not to subtract from his words. While the commentaries are of good entertainment value for their nonsensical wit, They pale in comparison to the power the actual Word has to change lives. One is far better off to go directly to the Almighty for teaching. As a true Father he does not fail us when we ask for help; even in matters such as this. Reply

Mordechai Shushan February 23, 2015

It must be remembered that many details could not be spelled out in the Scroll of Esther, which was written while the Jewish people were subject to the whims of the Persian Empire and under close scrutiny. Many details are hinted at with choice of wording and the like. The entire Jewish people lived through the nightmares of that era; they were inimitably familiar with the horrors inflicted by arch anti-Semites such as Haman, Vashti, and others. Details of the suffering and salvation of the time was passed through the generations and much of it is recorded in various rabbinic literature. To read the book without its commentary is akin to reading the Torah without the commentary transmitted verbally by Moses, and therefore wearing tefillin on the bridge of one's nose ("between your eyes") and severing hands ("a hand for a hand"), and the like. The commentary is indispensable and must be debated along with text. Reply

Daniel Masri Modiin February 22, 2015

Fairy tales story lines today "topples our assumptions about classic fairy-tale story-lines. The princesses we grew up with who were always chosen for their physical beauty and always needed to be saved by a prince"...The Disney princes's I have viewed with my children rise from the depths of poverty exhibiting exemplary character along the way and "for ever and ever".. I understand the contemporary social point you are trying to make but classic fairy tale story lines today are synonymous with Disney if we like it or not..Excellent article though...... Reply

ANNONOYMIS NA February 22, 2015

LOVED IT BEUTIFUL !!! Reply

Ari Wilkes-Barre, PA February 22, 2015

Well written! Reply

Jolie Greiff Ramat Beit Shemesh March 2, 2013

correction In the last paragraph it says Esther had not been summoned for 90 days. The correct number is 30. Reply

Dina USA March 5, 2012

Vashti For those unsure of Vashti's villification, this is a prime example of why Biblical texts cannot be studied without commentary. An excellent place to start is the Me'am Loez on the book of Esther. Prepare for a new perspective! Reply

Renee Pearman winchendon, ma March 5, 2012

Queen Vashti A tail?? Greenish skin?? Was mean to Jewish girls?? Where do all these suppositions and suggestions come from?? Her husband called for her to come and she refused. That's what got her in trouble. Why not just admit that we don't know whether she was expected to come naked with a crown or not?? MAYBE she refused to come based on morality, MAYBE she was feeling disrespectful. It's not important to the story. Reply

Pearl Schmier Allentown, PA, USA March 5, 2012

Vashti Those awful comments about Vashti, remember, are comments and conjectures made by men to advance a story. We know little about Vashti. Can't we just see her through neutral eyes? Reply

Justine Saidman Sydney, NSW March 4, 2012

Vashti Perhaps Vashti was pregnant? Reply

Jack Midland Park June 21, 2011

"Vashti was a Dog" This is an absurb comment. How does the reader know that Vashti enjoyed strip-tease dancing before drunken crowds. ? Reply

Goldie Omaha, Nebraska March 14, 2011

Vashti vs. Esther Interesting comparison between the two women who appear prominently in the celebration of Purim. In reading about Esther, I discovered that the king did not know of her Jewishness until Haman wanted to destroy all the Jews. But so stricken with Esther's beauty, (as I read the story) the king instead destroyed Haman's edict and Haman himself. Thus Esther is the Jewish heroine, and Vashti tends to fade into the background of Jewish Biblical history

Every year at our shul's Purim costume parade for children, I have never seen a child dressed as Vashti. However, there are many interpretations of Esther's beauty that are evident in the faces of the little girls, as well as in their costumes. . Reply

A former Mrs. Detroit August 10, 2009

I judge beauty pageants and it is interesting because I have married women who are presenting themselves as Paradigms of Virtue (I won't say the religion, but they are not Jewish) and when I ask how they feel about the swimsuit competition and their faith that they have just gushed about, they say they are doing this for their husbands. When I ask, "Would you do this if you weighed 25 pounds more?" they pale.

I think in the ends that Vashti normally danced for herself and her own ego. (Had Ester been asked to dance, she'd have done as she needed for her people as well as the fact that her life meant nothing if she disobeyed her husband.)

Superior article! Reply

muman613 March 11, 2009

Vashti was a dog This vile woman deserves no compassion. She was just as wicked and debased as the king was. She enjoyed strip-tease dancing before drunken crowds. She enjoyed tormenting young Jewish girls by making them work on Shabbat. There are no tears from me for this evil, evil woman who deserved death, not exile. I dont know why anyone would have compassion for such a beast. Yes indeed Vashti was a dog.. Reply

The Editor via mychabad.org March 24, 2008

Reply to Vashti: A Woman or Dog? it should be noted that Vashti was a vile person who took great delight in stripping naked and tormenting innocent Jewish girls. As such, she received her just punishment, and we have no need to mourn the death of this wicked individual.

Interestingly, the Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loewy, 16th century philosopher and mystic) says that Vashti was not asked to appear naked. When the king asked that she appear “wearing the royal crown,” his intention was that the crown should be the only piece of royal garb that she should wear. He didn’t want the crowd to be bedazzled by full royal regalia—but to appreciate her innate beauty. Reply

Marjorie Freeman Trumbull, CT March 23, 2008

Vashti - A woman or a dog? Reading the book of Esther reveals a woman who refuses to be paraded naked in front of a large group of drunken, lecherous men. There is no one to help her in this situation; as unbelievable as it seems, her husband, the king, no less, is in this drunken crowd, calling for her to debase herself. Further, what is the likelihood in such a situation that she would simply show her beautiful body and not be grasped or gang raped?

Yet Vashti is considered "bad", "evil" even, for not following the orders of the king. Our children draw her picture with pock marks. What would their fathers and future husbands say if our Jewish little girls agreed to appear naked with just a crown on to a drunken, "fun-loving" group of men when they were old enough to be seductive? Would they not be praised for refusing? So why is Vashti vilified by our present day scholars and story tellers?

Clearly, Vashti has to be exiled in order for the story of Esther to take place. But WE don't have to vilify her just because Haman and his friends do. We don't agree with the other opinions and actions Haman takes; why do we support his view that a wife has to do whatever her husband wants her to do, regardless of how degrading it is?

Hooray for Esther and for Vashti, women who know right from wrong, and who act accordingly regardless of the danger it puts them in! When a woman's life and death is controlled by men, a woman who is loved (presumably for more than just her looks) can still choose to do the right thing and live.

As for the rabbis' "tail", they presume that if Vashti were content with her beauty, she would show herself off naked to a group of powerful, drunken men, who have already demonstrated that they can get her husband to do whatever they want, regardless of her own (or his own) welfare. That "tail" sure seems to be a tall "tale" to me. This is not the story of Solome, who uses her strip tease dancing to get what she wants. There is nothing mentioned in the story for Vashti to desire, let alone something unlikely for her to be able to obtain without such drastic actions.
She decides how far is too far to go, simply to please her husband the king. We present day Jews should be lauding that decision, not berating her. Would that many other Gentiles in today's world defied their leaders and did what is right and humanitarian! Reply

Ava G April 13, 2007

What an enlightening article about the biggest difficuculty I as a baal-teshuvah face in embracing my Jewish heritage after a lifetime of working very hard for my shape and being rewarded for it by society at large ( I used to work as a model). To make things even more complicated I come from a Hungarian background, a country where even most Jewish girls routinely wear revealing clothes and try to assimilate- so when I spend time there in my knee- length skirts during the summer I stand out like a sore thumb even among my own family.

But I do think You did put Your finger on it when You said that when You feel good about where You are physically and spiritually ( and I too think the two go together)- then the modest clothes feel perfectly appropriate. And I myself have felt more appreciated as a person and as a woman in my knee length skirts than ever before when I was stared at but not seen as more than a desirable object. Reply

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