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Parshat Re’eh — The learned pig

The pig came to represent a non-Jewish hypocrite who professes to love the Jews while plotting their downfall -- but metaphors often break down under scrutiny (Re'eh)
Illustration of the Learned Pig by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Illustration of the Learned Pig by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A few months ago I promised that I would write more about the learned pig, so this week I want to speak about Toby, the learned pig (and all the later Tobys that followed).

Samuel Bisset was born in Perth, Scotland, in 1721. He began his working career as an itinerant cobbler, and travelled to London to seek his fortune. While in the capital, he heard of, and became enthralled with, performing animals.

He purchased a horse and a dog and trained them to do tricks, then added a couple of monkeys. He then bought some kittens and a few months later put on the “Cat’s Opera” at the Haymarket Theatre. He was a remarkable animal trainer, and eventually had a hare, a turtle, turkeys, canaries and sparrows performing for him, and even attempted to train a goldfish.

But his ultimate challenge was to train a pig — considered by many to be too obstinate to train. Bisset bought a black suckling pig, named it Toby, and after 16 months had trained it to do a variety of tricks.

Caricature of the learned pig by John Leech, 1840s. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A book with the incredible title of “Wonderful Museum and Magazine Extraordinary: Being a Complete Repository of All the Wonders, Curiosities, and Rarities of Nature and Art, from the Beginning of the World to the Present Year (Vol. IV),” in a section entitled, “Account of S. Bisset, the Extraordinary Teacher of Animals and a Wonderful Influence of Eccentricity and Patience” describes the tricks the pig performed while on tour in Ireland:

It was seen two or three days by many persons of condition, to spell without any apparent direction, the name or names of those in company, to cast up accounts, and to point out even the words thought of by persons present; to tell exactly the hour, minutes and seconds; to point out the married and unmarried; to knees and make his obeisance to the company, etc. etc.

Unfortunately, while in Ireland, a man ran into the dressing room and stabbed Bisset and threatened to kill the pig. Although he managed to save his animal, Bisset died soon afterwards.

A man named John Nicholson then took Toby and toured with it throughout Britain (some claim that it was Nicholson who actually trained the pig, and all the other performing animals attributed to Bisset).

The original learned pig died after four years (at least according to some reports), but it was followed by many other learned pigs (sometimes called Sapient Pigs), like the one Thomas Jefferson went to visit on February 8, 1775 — most of whom were also named Toby.

Not only were trained pigs exhibited all over the world, but it was even claimed that they could write books.

The Life and Adventures of Toby, the Sapient Pig, Written by Himself,” has an alleged autobiography of the book, in addition to moral messages, like this one on drunkenness:

From that moment I became disgusted with inebriety, and hope I shall always be so. If a man did but know how far he lessenes his dignity and how near he approaches, nay outsteps, the brute creation in his thoughts, words and deeds, besides the offence he offers to the sober eye, at the blush of modesty he would never again be found in that degraded state.

Another book, allegedly dictated by the pig to a naval officer, has Toby describing his previous incarnations, some of which were as a human. He also claims credit for some of Shakespeare’s plays:

With equal falsehood has he been father’d with many spurious dramatic pieces. ‘ Hamlet, Othello, As you like it, the Tempest, and Midsummer’s Night Dream,’ for five; of all which I confess myself to be the author.

Not only were there intelligent pigs popping up all over the place, but the idea of a learned pig was used as a metaphor for politicians, celebrities, scandals and a host of other ideas. For example, some understood that the above-mentioned story of the learned pig was an allusion to the true author of Shakespeare’s works — Sir Francis Bacon (get it? Pig — Bacon). Others say it was a dig at Samuel Johnson, he of dictionary fame.

A fabulous poem by Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845), entitled, “The Lament Of Toby, The Learned Pig” describes the fine line between intellect and meat.

In this world, pigs, as well as men,
Must dance to fortune’s fiddlings,
But must I give the classics up,
For barley-meal and middlings?…

Oh, why did I at Brazen-Nose
Rout up the roots of knowledge?
A butcher that can’t read will kill
A pig that’s been to college!

Robert Southey, in 1807, used the pig to mock the lack of scientific awareness of the general public:

The learned pig was in his day a far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Sir Isaac Newton.

The British satirical book, “The Rolliad” mentions the learned pig:

Says Wray to me, which is most witty,
The learned Pig or Parson Pretty?
Says I, I think, the latter is more wise;
Piggy tells truth alone; — but Pretty lies sir.

But my favorite is this April 4, 1785, article from the Northampton Mercury:

At a private exhibition of the Learned Pig, at Brooks’s a few days ago, a good deal of confusion arose to the master of the pig and the company present, from the improper questions which were put to this grunting philosopher. He counted the company well enough; but when he was asked how many Patriots were present, snorted at every member, and looked around for fresh orders.

How many are there present who are six pence clear of encumbrances? The pig stood still.

How many honest gentlemen? The pig would not stir.

Here the master was obliged to apologise and in a confounded passion whipped his pig down the stairs.

So the learned pig was not only an afternoon’s entertainment. It came to represent anything in society that was wrong or ludicrous (or both).

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, has a long list of non-kosher species of animals (Deuteronomy chapter 14). The most infamous animal on that list is the pig.

Farm pig in Laos showing one hoof and sticking out the tongue. (CC BY-SA, Basile Morin/ Wikimedia Commons)

Technically speaking, the pig is the most “kosher” of all the non-kosher species — it has split hooves and is only disqualified because it does not chew the cud. (The pig is first equal with the camel, hare and hyrax chew the cud but do not have split hooves). There is a long list of non-kosher birds, a description of what fish and insects are fit to be eaten.

In terms of punishment, the Talmud (Makkot 16b) says that someone who eats pork is liable to receive 39 lashes. But someone who eats certain types of insects may be liable for up to six sets of 39 lashes.

There was even a time when the Israelites were permitted to eat pig meat. The Torah (Deuteronomy 6:11) promises that when God brings them into the land of Canaan he will give them “houses filled with all good.” The Talmud (Hullin 17a) interprets that verse to mean that they will be able to enjoy the bacon left hanging on the walls of the homes they conquer.

Yet pig has become a metaphor for the ultimate in non-kosher.

Is this perhaps because the rabbis likened Esau to a pig? Jews throughout the ages have linked any evil person or nation to Esau. People have found an Esau connection to every villian, from Amalek to Chmielnicki to Hitler to even contemporary politicians.

A miniature pig (Sus scrofa). Kolmårdens djurpark, Sweden. (Public Domain, Johan Spaedtke/ Wikimedia Commons)

Rashi on Genesis 26:34 (based on Bereishit Rabba 65:1) says that just as a pig shows its cloven hooves when it lies down, as if to say, “I am kosher,” so Esau presented himself to his father Isaac as if he was also following in the footsteps of Abraham. But just like the pig who is actually unkosher, Esau would commit the worst kind of sins without his father’s knowledge.

The pig has become a metaphor for a non-Jewish hypocrite who professes to love the Jews but really plots their downfall. Like all good metaphors, the details are irrelevant, and anyone, Jewish or not, friend or foe, can become an Esau in the public mind.

Yet, just as the Israelites were permitted the bacon they found when they entered Canaan, sometimes these metaphorical Esaus are actually kosher. Sometimes we are so used to looking for the evil caricature of the bad guy that we fail to notice that he is actually not bad at all.

Politicians all over the world gain popularity by claiming they will save the nation from the enemy “other” waiting just outside the wall, lurking in the darkness, or turning up to the polling booth to wreak destruction.

Yet when we look beyond the stereotypes at the individuals, we often find that these claims are not entirely connected to reality.

The learned pig and the non-kosher pig became metaphors for much more. But the analogies do not always reflect the truth of the individuals.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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