Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Poor Vashti

Poor Vashti! Such was the topic of conversation this Purim. Someone expressed pity for Vashti, who after all simply stood up for herself to her husband, and was executed as a result. The midrashim, which paint her as a bad guy, as oppressing Jewish women and for being too sexually open, were no help, because those were midrashim, and not the Biblical text itself.

I pointed out in response that the Biblical text itself also does not claim that Vashti was executed. That is, rather, a Rashi:
that Vashti did not comeand therefore, she was executed.
The pasuk itself merely states:

ט  אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יֵצֵא דְבַר-מַלְכוּת מִלְּפָנָיו, וְיִכָּתֵב בְּדָתֵי פָרַס-וּמָדַי, וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר:  אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תָבוֹא וַשְׁתִּי, לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וּמַלְכוּתָהּ יִתֵּן הַמֶּלֶךְ, לִרְעוּתָהּ הַטּוֹבָה מִמֶּנָּה.19 If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus, and that the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she.

That is, the decree, that shall not be altered, is that Vashti should no more come before the king, and that her estate/position be given to someone better than she. And she could not be restored to her position, because the law may not be altered, a plot point that comes up again later in the megillah.

It then seems that this pasuk is often interpreted in another way. Despite the imperfect tense of tavo, it is read as: "because she did not show before the king Achashverosh, her royal estate should be given to another who is better than she." The vav is then not "and" but introduces the consequence, and asher is because. And it fits nicely into Vashti's offense. (The translation above, in Rashi, of the dibbur hamatchil in Judaica Press seems to match this; although it is interpretable another way, that the way in which she would never come before him is by being executed.) Then, the punishment and her disappearance from the scene are left relatively unspecified, and one can interpret into this an execution.

Some people were surprised at my alternate reading, in which not showing up before Achashverosh was part of the punishment, but when considering it, liked it as a strong possibility.

(I see now that an early French exegete, I think Rav Yosef Kara (page 5), said like me, and added further that of course she was not executed, for if so, why would they need to write any law in the lawbooks of Paras and Maday?!)


frumheretic said...

Of course, this presupposes that the story is true! Those who want to claim that the Purim story is historical say that Vashti was Xerxes' wife Amestris or equate Amestris with Esther. (Gil Student in his unconvincing article on Aishdas brings down both opinions.) Both are extremely problematic. The former, because Amestris married Xerxes before he was king and remained queen until his old age. That is, she was never deposed. Equating her with Esther is even more of a problem, and not just because of the timeline, but because of reputation as a horrifically brutal despot.

But what I find most interesting about Vashti is how she has garnered a reputation at two extremes. Either as a feminist archetype or - in the case of most Orthodox commentators - as an evil daughter of Belshazzar.

joshwaxman said...

"Of course, this presupposes that the story is true!"

not necessarily. ignoring issues of historicity (where i really lack confidence in reconstructions of this sort), whether one treats it as history, fiction, or morality tale, there is an internal meaning to to text, to which one can respond...


Jeremy said...

It's always surprising when one learns the story when he's young, and then finds it's not in the text when he gets older. Didn't Mordechai + Esther learn Rashi? Don't they know what happened to Vashti?


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