RABBI CHIYA BAR ABA THE FIRST, usually referred to in the Talmud as Rabbi Chiya (without his patronymic) or Rabbi Chiya Rabah (the great),1)שבת ל״ח ב׳. to distinguish him from Rabbi Chiya bar Aba the second who was an “Amora,” was a colleague and a pupil of Rabbi Jehudah and his influence was exerted after the Mishna had been completed preceding the beginning of the epoch of the Amoraim. Rabbi Chiya was born in a town near Sura in Babylonia about 190 years after the destruction of the temple. Some said that his family was descended from Shephatiah, the son of king David,2)ירושלמי תענית פרק ד׳ הלכה ב׳. while others traced its origin to Shimei, the brother of king David. A passage in the Talmud relates that Rabbi Jehudah wanted to marry his son to the daughter of Rabbi Chiya and just before the ceremony of the wedding the bride suddenly died. Rabbi Jehudah considered this to be a sign from heaven and he suspected some fault in Rabbi Chiya’s family. The origins of the two families were investigated and it was discovered that Rabbi Jehudah was descended from Shephatiah ben Avital, while Rabbi Chiya was descended from Shimei, the brother of king David.3)כתובות ס״ב ב׳.
Little is known of the youth of Rabbi Chiya, even as little is known of the other Babylonian scholars who lived in his time. It appears that the Jews of Babylonia maintained great academies, for when Rabbi Chiya arrived in Palestine together with his sons, they were already well versed in the Torah. Since they never visited Palestine previously they must have gained their knowledge in academies in Babylonia.
The statement of the Talmud that “when the Torah was once forgotten Ezra came from Babylonia and renewed it then came Hillel the Babylonian and renewed it again,” which is followed by “when the Torah was again forgotten Rabbi Chiya came with his sons and they renewed and expanded it,” therefore appears incomprehensible.4)סוכה כ׳ א׳. When Rabbi Chiya arrived in Palestine, learning was at a high level of development. Rabbi Jehudah was “Nasi” and he had many disciples so that there could hardly be any talk of the Torah being forgotten. The family of the Nasi occupied the undisputed leadership of the people and even had learning been at a low ebb the Nasi would not have allowed a recent arrival from Babylonia to become the “savior” of the situation.
However, there is no doubt of the fact that Rabbi Chiya was an important figure in Jewish life. He often lectured at the door of the Nasi5)כתובות ל״ד א׳. and when his colleagues spoke of him they referred to him as “the lion of the company.”6)שבת קי״א ב׳, סנהדרין ח׳ א׳.
Characteristic of the determination not to allow learning to die down is the following statement of Rabbi Chiya who said: “If the Torah were to be forgotten, I would take flax and weave nets with which I would capture deer. The flesh of the deer I would give to the orphans and from the skins I would make parchment on which to write the Torah. Then I would go to cities where there are no teachers; I would have the five books of the Torah written down and I would teach them to the children; later I would teach them the six orders of the Mishna. All that I would do to prevent the Torah from being forgotten.” When Rabbi Jehudah heard of this he said: “See what great deeds Rabbi Chiya promises to perform.”7)כתובות ק״ג ב׳, בבא מציעא פ״ח ב׳.
Upon his arrival in Palestine Rabbi Chiya was received with love and honor by Rabbi Jehudah and he ate at his table.8)ערובין ע״ג א׳. When he helped the Nasi with the formulation of a law, Rabbi Jehudah applied to him the verse of Isaiah (46:11) “from a far land my counsellor has come.”9)מנחות פ״ח ב׳. The great respect in which Rabbi Jehudah held Rabbi Chiya was exhibited on numerous occasions; when they arrived at the academy, Rabbi Jehudah asked Rabbi Chiya to enter first10)ירושלמי כלאים פרק ט׳ הלכה ג׳. and during a discussion of a question of cleanliness Rabbi Jehudah declared: “Leave my words and listen to the words of Rabbi Chiya.”11)עבודה זרה ל״ו ב׳.
Rabbi Jehudah always confided to Rabbi Chiya all his scholastic innovations and when he once forgot some of these during his sickness, Rabbi Chiya repeated them to him. Rabbi Jehudah then declared: “You have again made me what I had been!”12)נדרים מ״א א׳.
Outstanding among Rabbi Chiya’s legal achievements are his formulations of the laws governing interests.13)בבא מציעא ס״ב ב׳. He also made many innovations which he wrote down in a book, but these were not accepted by the people and they were named ״מגילת סתרים״ (the scroll of secrecy).14)שבת י׳ ב׳, סוכה נ״ב ב׳, בבא מציעא צ״ב א׳. Rabbi Chiya participated in the compilation of the “Tosephta” and together with his pupil Rabbi Oshaia he shared in gathering the “Boraitha.” It was an accepted rule at that time that any Boraitha which was not expounded by either Rabbi Chiya or Rabbi Oshaia is of doubtful authenticity.15)חולין קמ״א ב׳.
Rabbi Chiya frequently accompanied Rabbi Jehudah on the latter’s travels in the fulfillment of his duties as Nasi or to the imperial court in the interests of the people.16)חגיגה ה׳ ב׳, תנחומא פ׳ וישב. Whenever Rabbi Jehudah was displeased with him he merely remarked: “I think that someone is calling you outside.” Rabbi Chiya would then understand the hint and would remain away from the academy for thirty days.17)מועד קטן ט״ז ב׳.
Rabbi Chiya resided in Tiberias most of the time and there he conducted an academy. Frequently he would be empowered by Rabbi Jehudah to determine the day of the new months and to establish leap years and he would then be sent to other communities to inform the inhabitants of these decisions. Rabbi Jehudah lived in Sephoris which was located in Galilee, but the law prescribed that the determination of a new month or a leap year had to be made in a city of Judea.18)סנהדרין י״א ב׳. A special court was therefore established in Ein Tuv and Rabbi Chiya went there to represent the Nasi at these functions.19)ראש השנה כ״ג א׳.
To earn his livelihood Rabbi Chiya engaged in commerce and in partnership with Rabbi Simeon, the son of Rabbi Jehudah, he traded in silk which was then marketed in Tyre.20)רות רבה פּרשה א׳. Later he also traded in flax.21)ירושלמי בבא מציעא פרק ה׳ הלכה ו׳. He was successful in his commercial ventures and he had to entrust the conduct of some of his business to his nephew Rav (Aba Arecha). Rabbi Chiya was also considered to be an authority on coins. It is related that a woman once came to him and asked him concerning the value of a coin and he declared that it was genuine. The following day the woman brought the same coin and he said that it was false, but since he declared it to be genuine on the previous day he commanded Rav to exchange it for a good coin and to write down the loss as an unsuccessful transaction.22)בבא קמא צ״ט ב׳.
Despite his success Rabbi Chiya never boasted of his wealth and when the poor came to his house he would say to his wife: “Give them bread and in the future they may return it to your children.” His wife objected by saying: “You curse your own children,” but Rabbi Chiya replied: “I do not curse them but such is the changing fate of the world.”23)שבת קנ״א ב׳.
Of Rabbi Chiya’s family life it was related that his wife twice gave birth to twins and because her laboring pains were so great, she vowed never to bear children again. Dressed in different clothes and with her face covered by a veil to prevent her husband from recognizing her, she came to his academy and asked him whether a woman was legally compelled to bear children. Rabbi Chiya declared that she was not compelled to do so. The woman then drank a medicine which the women of that time used to avoid bearing children.24)יבמות ס״ה ב׳.
Rabbi Chiya was devoted to the Torah and at prayer he would repeat a special prayer of his own asking God to make the Torah his life work and to preserve him from an ailing heart and from failing vision.25)ברכות ט״ז ב׳. When he was asked what was the aim of woman in life if she was not obliged to engage in study, he replied that “women should bring their children to the academy and they must also accompany their husbands to the synagogue and wait there until they will come out after prayer.”26)ברכות י״ז א׳.
To avoid seeing others put to shame Rabbi Chiya sometimes sacrificed his own dignity. It once occurred that while he was lecturing at the academy, Rabbi Jehudah noticed the odor of garlic. Being in an angry mood that day Rabbi Jehudah exclaimed: “Whoever had eaten garlic should leave the academy.” Rabbi Chiya was the first to rise and leave the building. The others saw him leave and knowing that he could not have been guilty of the offense they all followed his example and went out in order not to put the offender to shame.27)סנהדרין י״א א׳.
Much was spoken of Rabbi Chiya’s saintliness and it was said that since his arrival in Palestine storms no longer occurred and the wine never turned sour.28)חולין פ״ו א׳.
Another legend related that the prophet Elijah appeared to Rabbi Jehudah and informed him that in the eyes of God Rabbi Chiya and his sons had the same merit as the Patriarchs and that all their prayers would be answered. It then occurred that no rain fell for a long time. Rabbi Jehudah declared a fast and he ordered Rabbi Chiya to pray before the pulpit. As soon as Rabbi Chiya reached the words “He causes the winds to blow” a strong wind arose and when he pronounced the words “He causes the rain to fall” rain began to descend. When Rabbi Chiya reached the words “He causes the dead to come to life” everyone in heaven was disturbed, for it seemed that the hour of resurrection was at hand and it was asked in heaven who had revealed the secret to the people. When it became known that Elijah had revealed the secret, he was punished with sixty fiery lashes. Elijah then descended to earth in the guise of a fiery bear and scattered the congregation from the synagogue.29)בבא מציעא פ״ח ב׳.
Legend further relates that when Rabbi Chiya was about to die, the angel of death was afraid to touch him. He therefore assumed the guise of a poor man and knocked on the door. Rabbi Chiya heard this and said to the members of his household: “There is a poor man at the door. Give him some bread.” The angel of death appealed to Rabbi Chiya and said: “I have heard you pity a poor man and order that he be given bread. Why then do you also not have pity on me? You know that I was sent to take your soul. Give it to me that I should not have to come here again.”30)מועד קטן כ״ח א׳.
When Rabbi Chiya died—the Talmud continues—fiery stones fell from heaven.31)מועד קטן כ״ה ב׳.