Vashti Exposed

Reading between the lines of a queen’s refusal.

by Rabbi Nicole Roberts

Photo by Nick Morieson via Flickr

Photo by Nick Morieson via Flickr

“On the 7th day, when the king [Achashverosh] was merry with wine, he ordered…the seven eunuchs in attendance…to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the people and officials, for she was a beautiful woman. But Queen Vashti refused…”  (Est. 1:10-12).

The Book of Esther frequently suggests a connection between power and attire (outer garments, jewelry, and royal accoutrements). For example, the transfer of a signet ring indicates a transfer of authority (3:10; 8:2), and proper garments are required to physically approach people or places of royalty (4:2-4; 5:1-2). So, one might ask, why wouldn’t Queen Vashti wish to flaunt her high standing in society by parading before the king’s guests, crowned with her royal diadem?  

Today, we take pride in Vashti’s refusal: she will not submit to being presented as a mere object in someone else’s possession — a “trophy wife.” You go, girl! 

Yet the Talmud recounts the story differently, offering a more nuanced understanding of Vashti’s refusal. Here, the king boasts to his guests about how beautiful his queen is, and, as proof, they request to see her naked (B. Megillah 12b). When she refuses, Achashverosh becomes incensed; he had expected her to oblige. 

This story presents a more painful scenario than the biblical account. It is a scenario all too common in abusive relationships:  One partner threatens to expose the other’s nakedness — a weakness, a very personal fact or feature, a vulnerability, or a secret shared in confidence and trust — to “people and officials” who have no business knowing such intimate details about the individual concerned or about the relationship. Vashti’s act of refusal ensures that what properly belongs behind closed doors and between two intimate partners remains safe from inappropriate exposure. Stripping her of her clothing in front of others would have left her not only physically vulnerable, but emotionally betrayed, shamed, hurt, and unable to trust. To parade her “naked” in public is to disempower her, depriving her of the dignity that an intimate relationship is meant to afford. In refusing, she affirms that a relationship should be a place of trust and confiding, not an opportunity for self-aggrandizement and the exercise or flaunting of power.

  1. How does your relationship with your partner empower you? How does it make you vulnerable?
  2. What are you willing to share only with your partner and no one else?
  3. Have you ever felt exposed or embarrassed by something a partner shared about you in public or to a relative? What was his or her intention in doing so, and what was the impact on you? On your partner? On those who heard? 
  4. Have you ever felt that your partner inappropriately shared something with others about your relationship?
  5. Consider these same questions with respect to your other (non-partner) relationships, i.e., with family members, friends, and co-workers. 

This essay appears in JWI’s Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Text.

Rabbi Nicole Roberts, a member of JWI’s Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, worked as a CPA and an avid volunteer in the Jewish community before deciding to attend rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. She is now the rabbi at North Shore Temple Emanuel in Chatswood, a community near Sydney, Australia.