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In מגילה דף יב (Megillah 12a-b) it gives two reasons as to why Vashti did not go to Achashveirosh when he requested her to the party. The first reason is that Vashti had Tzarat (a metaphysical skin affliction). The second is that גבריאל (the angel Gavriel) made her have a tail.

I have a few questions:

1) What is the difference between these two answers? They appear to be some physical affliction that prevented her from going. If I have one, I don't need the other.

2) How does a person grow a tail? Why would the malach (angel) choose to make her have a tail? Is there some significance?

3) Is this to be taken literally?

4) Why in the second answer is גבריאל (Gavriel) mentioned? Why didn't he bring about the Tzarat?

Here is the text of the גמרא:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יב/ב

מאי טעמא לא אתאי אמר רבי יוסי בר חנינא מלמד שפרחה בה צרעת במתניתא תנא בא גבריאל ועשה לה זנב

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@Charles Koppelman Thanks for the Edit! –  RCW Feb 24 '13 at 22:50
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5 Answers

Although the word זנב does sometimes mean a tail, it is actually a generic word. This is how the ספר הערוך defines it: כל דבר שהוא יתר שאינו כמדת חברו משתנה מכמות שהוא ממה שהעולם נוהג קרוי זנב - anything which is extra or which is not the same size as the adjoining one or which is different from what is usual elsewhere, is called a זנב.

Therefore a suitable generic translation here would be an appendage, and at least one of the commentaries (I think the Alshich) explains that it means that she had a big growth on her forehead.

According to this, the extra disfigurement meant that she would have refused to show herself at Achashverosh's feast even if she would have been allowed to appear fully clothed.

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1) Indeed, if you have one midrash, you don't need the other. This is likely a disagreement, rather than an assertion that both happened.

Rabbi Yossi ben Hanina, the one who stated that it was tzaraat, is an Amora of Eretz Yisrael. As Tosafot notes on the daf, in the parallel Yerushalmi, we find out that this is a derasha on the word nigzar in Esther 2:1:

וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-נִגְזַר עָלֶיהָ

The word nigzar also occurs by Uzziah, a king who brought ketores, though he was not a kohen, and was stricken with leprosy.

Meanwhile, the brayta presumably derives the tail from some other source. According to Tosafot HaRosh, it is the word עָלֶיהָ in the same phrase. Written with an aleph instead of an ayin, it would be read alya, which means a tail.

2) A person grows a tail suddenly as a result of a miracle. While I'm sure some people explain the significance of specifically a tail, I would personally note that the rules of midrashic interpretation will restrict the details of the midrash to specifically that which can be deduced from the pasuk via midrashic rules. This was a means of suddenly marring her beauty, such that (based on the context of the gemara) though she would normally have loved to lewdly display her naked body, here she was embarrassed.

3) It depends. I would say yes, the rabbis who wrote this did intend them literally, though we do not have to agree that it historically occurred. Alternatively, it is meant metaphorically. See my discussions of this here and here.

4) I don't know. Different midrashic authors might mention different details. I don't know what specifically brings Gavriel in here, or if there is a running tradition of Gavriel secretly guiding all sorts of events in the megillah. For example, see Megillah 16a, where Shamshai the scribe erased what Mordechai had done to save the king from Bigtan and Teresh, but the angel Gavriel came and rewrote it. Note also that the entire second answer is in square brackets in our gemaras. I am not sure what that means, or what alternate girsa exists there.

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Thank you for sharing those thoughts. My challenge is that when you have two positions in the Gemara, they usually are two different conceptual positions. The way you have described it, they are both the same explanation, her beauty was marred by either a tail or skin affliction. I would think it should be two distinct idea, not just an argument over facts. –  RCW Feb 24 '13 at 18:05
I actually disagree with that premise. –  josh waxman Feb 24 '13 at 19:20
Can you elaborate? Perhaps it is a broader discussion then we can have in the comments. I would probably have to show many examples to demonstrate my point. –  RCW Feb 24 '13 at 19:33
@RCW, I don't know if Josh's sources bring this out, but I would think that tzaraat, being a punishment for sin, would be in a different category than a random blemish like a tail. The tail is weird and apparently ugly; the tzaraat is personally embarrassing because people will know you're being punished. (There's also the whole isolation thing with tzaraat.) –  Monica Cellio Feb 24 '13 at 20:07
@RCW I'm not sure; that's why this is just an idea in comments. :-) If she was being punished for something we don't know what; tzaraat seems to go with speech transgressions, but it's speculation on top of speculation (the tzaraat is midrash, not text). I'm just saying that if she was being punished for some unknown transgression, she might not want to make that fact known to the whole court, and that might be different from the "I'm ugly" embarrassment of either a tail or the skin affliction devoid of its cause. Make sense? –  Monica Cellio Feb 24 '13 at 23:03
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Perhaps the גמרא is providing two separate answers to one question. The question is what prevented Vashti from following Achashveirosh’s request to attend the party. The first answer to this question appears straight forward. Vashti had some skin problem that made her feel unable to go before Achashveirosh. Perhaps her she felt unattractive, like some woman feel before going to an event. Perhaps her vanity would not let her go.

The גמרא presents an alternative approach. Vashti grew a tail. Obviously people don’t grow tails. So, what is the message that the גמרא is trying to convey. A tail is something you would find on an animal. Perhaps the message is that Vashti perceived something. She recognized that she was being objectified. Achasveirosh wanted her to appear in front of her guests to show off her beauty. She was not being viewed as a human with a mind and personality. She was being viewed as purely a beautiful creature. She was being reduced from being a human to merely her physical body, like an animal devoid of a mind.
People might normally not object to this because they imagine that they are being appreciated for both mind and body. There is a combination. Like by a beauty pageant there is a blend of focus. It is not just the swimsuit competition, but a demonstration of their talents and personality and intelligence. These elements make it palatable for people. But somehow the providence revealed to Vashti that in this situation the people are just viewing her as this “animal”, this body to satisfy the onlookers and Achashveirosh’s ego. People do not like to be reduced to being all about their body. People don’t like to be focused purely on the instinctual. We cover that up. We eat with manners and formality to remove the activity from being “animalistic”. People are uncomfortable when things remind them that they have these base animalistic instincts. Vashti was uncomfortable with this. Perhaps the inclusion of Gavriel the מלאך is to indicate that under normal circumstances Vashti would not have this realization. However, in this instance Vashti was assisted to clearly see how she was being viewed and made to be seen as an object. This was unacceptable to Vashti.

In other words, she was by nature a prutzah (translation?) and under normal circumstances would have done this without hesitation as the Gemara indicates (מגילה דף יב). However, the answer of the Tail is suggesting that with the help of the Hashgacha (providence) she had a realization that she normally would not have. That is implied by Gavriel. This was out of the ordinary that she was able to see this idea. The Hashgacha helped her to see how she was being perceived so to speak.

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nice, but see what I wrote here parsha.blogspot.com/2007/03/… that it is against the theme of the midrash that Vashti did not wish to be objectified. Finally, the gemara states: ותמאן המלכה ושתי מכדי פריצתא הואי דאמר מר שניהן לדבר עבירה נתכוונו מ"ט לא אתאי א"ר יוסי בר חנינא מלמד שפרחה בה צרעת במתניתא תנא [בא גבריאל ועשה לה זנב. "Vashti the queen refused" - let us see. She was a prutza! For Master said: both of them (Vashti and Achashverosh) intended to sin. If so, for what reason did she not come?" The implication is... –  josh waxman Feb 24 '13 at 18:32
Thank you for your comments. The comment got cut off, I am curious about what you were going to say. Also, to respond to your comment. She was by nature a prutzah and under normal circumstances would have done this without hesitation as the Gemara indicates. However, the answer of the Tail is suggesting that with the help of the Hashgacha she had a realization that she normally would not have. That is implied by Gavriel. This was out of the ordinary that she was able to see this idea. The Hashgacha helped her to see how she was being perceived so to speak. –  RCW Feb 24 '13 at 19:30
That's an interesting interpretation, particularly as clarified by your comment that she was getting a new insight here. (Maybe you could edit that into your answer?) Thanks. –  Monica Cellio Feb 26 '13 at 16:22
@MonicaCellio Thanks Monica! I added the clarification to the post. –  RCW Feb 27 '13 at 1:24
+1, nice interpretation. The only problem is, why Gavriel of all angels -- he is, after all, the symbol of middas haDin (or of law and order if you like), and in your interpretation, he seems to be the one breaking the rules. –  gt6989b Mar 12 at 11:49
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Per the comment from Rabbi Slifkin on the parshblog, the term "tail" can at times be referring euphemistically to the phallus, as it states by Amalek וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים (devarim 25:18) which Rashi (based on the midrash) explains as

and cut off: [The word וַיְזַנֵּב is derived from the word זָנָב, meaning “tail.” Thus, the verse means: Amalek] “cut off the tail.” This refers to the fact that Amalek cut off the members [of the male Jews,] where they had been circumcised, and cast them up [provocatively] towards Heaven [exclaiming to God: “You see! What good has Your commandment of circumcision done for them?”]- [Tanchuma 9]

So to answer 2 and 3 I would say yes it is literal and could be see as being done through some sort of hormonal change

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could a hormonal change cause a sudden growth of a phallus in an adult woman, rather than in a developing fetus? i was your upvote, btw. –  josh waxman Feb 27 '13 at 1:44
@joshwaxman certainly not a fully functioning male organ but it could cause growth and awkward development in the homologous organ in a female. Looks like I'm the upvote now. –  not-allowed to change my name Feb 27 '13 at 3:07
within a single day, to such an extent that it could be called that? i think that if they meant it literally, then they meant it as a miracle. –  josh waxman Feb 27 '13 at 4:40
@joshwaxman I agree it was probably miraculous but if the op was looking for a "natural" way, that was the best I could come up with –  user2110 Feb 27 '13 at 14:25
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Rav Eliyahu Essas, one of the most respected Russian rabbanim, answers a similar question on his website (the video is in Russian). The basic idea seems to be based on two things:

  • The passuk in Devarim 25:18 - וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים
    He uses the same word זַנֵּב (tail) to mean that it happened measure for measure. Just like Amalek in his original tactics used the tactics of the tail to destroy us, so too the tail had to come up at some point to destroy Amalek himself -- which is why this tail becomes the source point from which the whole story is sent into tailspin.
  • The idea of this being Gavriel that is specifically being entrusted to do this is that this angel stands for the Divine Justice (middas haDin); therefore, he is the most appropriate symbol of measure-for-measure.
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