Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tezaveh- Shabbat Zakhor 5769

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman

Dr. Gilad Sasson

Department of Talmud

The beginning of the Scroll of Esther deals extensively with relations between spouses, focusing on Vashti’s refusal to appear before King Ahasuerus.   In the king’s eyes, it was an issue between him and his partner – “for failing to obey the command of King Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:15).  Therefore he assembled his advisers in order to decide how to deal with his rebellious wife.  One of the advisers, Memucan, turned this problem from a personal issue between the king and queen into a matter of state, affecting the entire kingdom:  “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty” (Esther 1:16).  The king and queen are representative figures, setting an example for all the subjects in the kingdom, and therefore Vashti’s refusal affects relations between spouses in each and every household:   “For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands” (1:17).  Therefore Memucan advised King Ahasuerus to depose the queen and issue an edict making it clear to all men and women who is boss:  “and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike” (1:20).  The bottom line of Memucan’s plan was “that every man should wield authority in his home” (1:22).

The Husband is the Boss

A search of the rabbinic homilies on this verse (Esther 1:22) reveals their position regarding relations between spouses not only in Ahasuerus’ kingdom, but also in their own private domain.  Here we present two interpretations that deal with the effectiveness of the edict issued by Ahasuerus.  According to both of them the edict was superfluous, and issuing it only attested to the foolishness of King Ahasuerus.   What is interesting is that the homilists’ explanations stem from opposing positions regarding the question of spousal relations.  The first interpretation appears in the Babylonian Talmud in the name of the Babylonian amora Rabba ( Megillah 12b):

That every man should wield authority in his homeRabba said:  Had it not been for the first edicts, not a single Jew would have survived the enemies of Israel.   They said:  What is this that he has sent us?  “That every man should wield authority in his home”?   But this is so obvious!   Even a bald man is a superior official in his own home.

Rabba maintained that due to the first edicts issued by Ahasuerus, dealing with the status of husbands in their own homes, the Jews’ lives were saved.   Since these edicts showed up the foolishness of King Ahasuerus to all, no one rushed to carry out the command of his later edicts in which he instructed that the Jews be wiped out.  Wherein lay the foolishness of the first edict?  People asked what innovation was there in the idea that “every man should wield authority in his home,” when even the most simple and lowly of men rules in his own home.   This homily by Rabba reveals his position in the question at hand; it was patently clear to Rabba that the man rules the roost and that this was the natural way of the world.  A later homily [1] even asserts that this is the desirable state of affairs:   “A woman is not a proper wife unless she does the will of her husband.” [2]

The Wife Rules the Roost

Midrash Esther Rabbah as well contains a homily dealing with Ahasuerus’ edict, and this homily also indicates the king’s foolishness. However the explanation given is the opposite (Esther Rabbah 4.12):

Dispatches were sent to all the provinces of the king (1:22) – Rav Huna said:  Ahasuerus was out of his mind.  Such is the way of the world:  if a man would like to eat lentils but his wife would like to have peas, can he force his will on her?  No, for that which she wants, she does.

According to Rav Huna, the foolishness of the edict stemmed from the assumption that it could change the natural order of things, namely that the woman makes the decisions in the home and is the boss.   Rav Huna provides an illustration from an area of life in which the woman has the upper hand and then extends this to marital relations in general.  Thus Rav Huna describes a state of affairs which is the opposite of that presented by Rabba:   the woman, not the man, decides how the house will be run.  It is not clear whether Rav Huna willingly accepted this state of affairs or whether he was displeased by it.

Now we must ask how it is that these two amoraim describe the opposite state of affairs regarding the question of who rules in the home – the man or the woman.   The answer to this question might lie in the personal experience of each in his own home and his relations with his own spouse.  In Rabba’s house, he ruled, whereas in Rav Huna’s house, his wife was the boss.  Moreover, underlying Rav Huna’s remarks might be the well-known story from the Babylonian Talmud about the amora Rav and his wife. [3]   In this story, the wife’s decision as to what her husband would eat, contrary to his desires, is presented as evidence of a home in which the wife does not obey her husband’s will.   The story makes it clear that this is not a desirable state of affairs, especially since it is told as an illustration of the verse in Ecclesiastes (7:26):  “Now, I find woman more bitter than death” (Yevamot 63a):

Rav’s wife used to cause him grief.  When he told her, “make me lentils,” she would make him borscht, and when he asked for borscht, she would make him lentils. When his son Hiyya grew up, he would say the reverse to her.   He [Rav] said to him, “Your mother has improved in her treatment of you!” to which he replied, “I am the one who changed with regard to her.”  He said, “As the saying goes:  Your issue teaches you reason; but you should not do thus, for it says:  ‘They have trained their tongues to speak falsely…’ (Jer. 9:4).”

Rav’s wife ruled in her home, and she made this perfectly clear to her husband. She caused him grief and deliberately prepared him food that which he did not wish to eat.   It appeared that Rav had come to terms with the state of affairs where his wife would do the opposite of his request.  His son Hiyya, seeing his father’s grief, sought to right the situation by requesting of his mother the opposite of that which his father had requested, so that in the end the father would receive precisely that which he wanted.  The son’s wisdom was pleasing to Rav, but he asked him not to do so any more, since in that way he was accustoming himself to speaking falsehood.   As we said, this story about Rav’s marital life might have been in Rav Huna’s mind when he asserted that the woman does whatever she wishes. [4]


[1] Elijah Rabbah 10, Ish-Shalom edition, p. 51.

[2] Halakhic expression of this position can be found in Maimonides, Hilkhot Ishut (15.20):  “The Rabbis commanded that a wife respect her husband in the extreme, and that she be in fear of him and do all that he says, and that she relate to him as a high official or king, following every desire of his heart and shunning all that he hates.   This is the way of Jewish daughters and sons, who are pure and sacred in their marital relations, and in this way their homes will be fine and praiseworthy.”

[3] In several variants, and in the version presented here, the narrator in Esther Rabbah is Rabbi Huna, a disciple of Rav.  If we are indeed dealing with Rav Huna, it would stand to reason that he was closely familiar with his Rabbi’s home life, and that he based his assertions on this understanding.   According to another variant, the narrator is the amora Rav Huna from the land of Israel, but also according to this version it is quite possible that we are dealing with a sage who was familiar with the story about Rav and his wife.

[4] Unlike this source, which presents the woman ruling in the home as an undesirable reality, recently writings in a different spirit have been published in the name of the late Rabbi Abraham-Elkanah Shapira (cited by Elhanan Nir in the article, “Esh u-Pashtut,” Makor Rishon, Mussaf Shabbat, 23 Tishre 5768 [2008]):  “I once asked him [Rabbi Shapira, G. S.] a question, and when I had finished he asked me to help him put on his winter overcoat.   As he was putting it on he asked whether it was cold outside, and I answered that it was not.   ‘Do you know why I wear a coat?’ he suddenly turned to me and asked, evincing a measure of closeness.   ‘Because my wife [lit. my Rabbanit] told me to do so.  One day you will have a wife, and whatever she tells you to do, you should do.   She said to me, “Avrom, take a coat,” but I resisted.  Avrom, take a coat,” but still I did not want to, yet in the end I took it.  So, when you have a Rabbanit, do not argue with her; simply do what she says from the outset, since in the end we always do as they say.”   According to Rabbi Shapira, this is the desirable state of affairs.