The Bible Says What? Did Vashti appear naked before her husband?
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The Bible Says What? Did Vashti appear naked before her husband?

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers takes a controversial topic from Jewish texts and looks at a progressive response

Scroll of megillat Esther  (Wikipedia/
Israel Museum)
Scroll of megillat Esther (Wikipedia/ Israel Museum)

I was told the story about Abraham smashing up his father’s idol shop so many times as a child that I was 23 before I realised this isn’t actually in the Genesis narrative. It’s Midrash.

Aged 26, I was teaching Purim at a Christian centre in London, and mentioned that Vashti was invited to appear naked before her husband and his friends.

One of the students disagreed with me; they’d never seen that before. So we went back to the text to prove I was right. I was wrong. The text doesn’t mention Vashti being naked – we just have our minds in the gutter!

The Book of Esther says she was asked to appear wearing her royal crown, in order to show off her beauty. It doesn’t say she was supposed to wear only the crown.

It is a Midrash found in the Talmud (Megillah 12b) that suggests she is in fact asked to appear naked.

Since then, I have tried to comfort myself by checking I wasn’t the only person who had learned Midrash, as if it were in the Tanach. In fact, many of us think that the text says something that it actually doesn’t, which fascinates me!

In this column we often look at the weird, wonderful, and sometimes horrifying things embedded in our text.

But sometimes, we discover that what we thought exists in the text is actually only in a commentary. Our stories as a people are complicated.

We tell them through thousands of years of commentary, and we are still invited to contribute to that ongoing process today.

There are times when I’m surprised by what the Bible says – and others by what it doesn’t say – but the Jewish story really continues by engaging with both ways and telling it anew.

◆ Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at Reform Judaism

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