RABBI CHIYA BAR ABA HACOHEN is not to be confused with the Tana Rabbi Chiya Raba who lived four generations earlier during the time of Rabbi Jehudah Hanasi. He came to Palestine from Babylonia together with his brother Simeon. Since no mention is made of his teachers in Babylonia it is to be assumed that he left that country while still very young. Upon his arrival in Palestine he still found the first of the Amoraim Rabbi Chanina bar Chama and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who were then already old men. When Rabbi Chiya came to Sephoris he was befriended by Rabbi Chanina bar Chama who often leaned on him when he walked through the streets; he was also respected by Resh Lakish who engaged him to tutor his children. Rabbi Jochanan likewise loved his pupil Rabbi Chiya and called him “my child”.1)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ב׳ הלכה ח׳. When Rabbi Chiya fell ill, Rabbi Jochanan came to visit him and asked him: “Do you love your suffering?”, implying thereby that suffering atones for one’s sins, but Rabbi Chiya replied: “I want neither suffering nor its reward”. Rabbi Jochanan then asked him to give his hand and he cured him.2)ברכות ה׳ ב׳.
Rabbi Chiya bar Aba was also respected by the Patriarch Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the Second who empowered him to visit various cities together with Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi for the purpose of clarifying matters of religious conduct and also in order to appoint tax collectors in these cities for the government and for the Nasi.3)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק א׳ הלכה ז׳.
Rabbi Chiya suffered greatly in Palestine. Although he did not suffer want to the same extent as his brother did, he nevertheless was subject to other limitations and hindrances. Friends then advised him to leave Palestine, but for some time he refused to leave the country. Finally he was compelled by circumstances to leave when he no longer wanted to gain his sustenance from tithes which in his eyes amounted to charity and made him feel dependent. He was at that time the “Cohen” of the family Silone which gave him its tithes. When a dispute arose concerning the interpretation of a law which Rabbi Chiya wanted to interpret more leniently than the other scholars, he feared that his action would be explained as an attempt to favor the family from whom he derived his livelihood.4)ירושלמי שביעית פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳. He then went to Babylonia and he was detained by no one. Rabbi Chiya asked Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath to obtain for him a letter of recommendation from the Nasi and the latter immediately granted his request. In his letter to the Jews of Babylonia the Nasi wrote: “We are sending you a great man who is our messenger and who is like ourselves.”5)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק א׳ הלכה ח׳.
Rabbi Chiya later returned to Palestine where he remained permanently. He lived in several cities, namely in Gabala, which was situated between Beth Shean and Tiberias,6)יבמות מ״ו א׳. in Roma which was located in Galilee,7)ירושלמי מעשר שני פרק ד׳ הלכה א׳. in Sephoris,8)בראשית רבה פּרשה נ״ב פּיסקא ב׳. and in Lodacea.9)בראשית רבה פּרשה י״א פּיסקא ד׳. His permanent residence was later in Tyre which had once been a Phoenician city, but at that time it contained a Jewish community and was considered to be a part of Palestine.
It was told that at the death of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the Second priests were permitted to participate in the burial of the Nasi. Rabbi Zeira, who was also a priest, disapproved of this ruling and Rabbi Chiya forced him to touch the body of this Nasi. It appears that Rabbi Chiya was not very strict in the observance of the priestly restrictions on other occasion as well. Thus it was told that when emperor Diocletian visited Tyre, Rabbi Chiya passed through a cemetery to see him.10)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳.
Rabbi Chiya bar Aba was very pious and many wondrous tales were related of the effects of his prayers. Some he cured through prayer and for others he obtained long life. Once there appeared a wild animal which destroyed all the trees which it chanced upon. The people came to Rabbi Chiya to ask him to pray that the animal should depart. He prayed and the animal suddenly heard the voice of its mother*)The above mentioned Midrash does not name the animal and merely refers to it as ״גורא״ a young beast. This was assumed to be a ״ראם״ concerning the nature of which commentators differed. According to a Midrash the ״ראם״ was a gigantic animal which Noah could not take into the Ark, because of its size and he therefore tied it to the Ark that it might swim along with it. The “Septuaginta” (Greek translation of the Bible) identified the ״ראם״ with a unicorn. Others gave differing descriptions. It nevertheless appears that the animal referred to in the Midrash was a young elephant which uprooted trees and which fled when it heard the call of his mother. and fled to the desert whence it came.11)בראשית רבה פּרשה ל״א פּיסקא י״ח.
Rabbi Chiya bar Aba was not an adherent of Hagada and when he lectured on Halacha in the same city with Rabbi Avahu of Caesarea, the people flocked to hear Rabbi Avahu whose discourse dealt with Hagada. The opinion of Rabbi Chiya concerning Hagada is illustrated by the incident when he saw a book of Hagadoth and remarked: “Even though it may contain some good things, the hands of him who wrote the book should be cut off.”12)ירושלמי שבת פרק ט״ז פּיסקא א׳. We may also assume that his knowledge of the Bible was limited.13)תוספות בבא בתרא קי״ג א׳. One of his pupils once asked him the reason why the word ״טוב״ (good) was mentioned in the version of the ten commandments given in Deuteronomy but not in the first version. To this Rabbi Chiya replied: “Rather than to ask me why the word ״טוב״ is or is not used, you should ask me whether it is used at all for I do not know of it.”14)בבא קמא נ״ה א׳.
Like his contemporaries Rabbi Chiya also revered the Sabbath above all and he maintained that because of its merit the Jews will be redeemed.15)ויקרא רבה פּרשה ג׳ פּיסקא א׳.
“When Jews pray”, Rabbi Chiya said, “they do not all end their prayers at the same time for each group prays separately. But when all the prayers are finished, the angel who is in charge of prayer gathers them and weaves out of them crowns for the head of God who adorns Himself with the prayers of Israel.”16)שמות רבה פּרשה כ״א פּיסקא ד׳.
“One who observes the Shema is like one who observes all the Ten Commandments for the latter were given at the time of the morning Shema and all of them are also included in the Shema.”17)מדרש פּסיקתא חדתא לחג השבועות.
Other statements of Rabbi Chiya give a clear picture of the time during which he lived. Thus he said:
“Even a father and a son or a teacher and his pupil waged hot discussions on their differences of opinion while interpreting their studies, but they do not part until they grow to love each other.”18)קדושין ל׳ ב׳.
“If one were to tell you that you should give your life for the santification of the name of God, you may say to him: ‘I will do so if I am to be killed at once, but not if I have to undergo the ordeal of previous generations when heated balls of iron were placed under the arms of Jews or when their nails were pierced with wire.’”19)שיר השירים רבה פרק ב׳ פּיסקא י״ח.
“The hatred of the Gentile nations toward the Jews may be compared to a man who is an enemy of the king and wishes to harm him, but cannot do so. Such a man at least wants to destroy the statue of the king, but fearing that he would be executed for such a deed, he undermines the wall of the monument thus causing it to fall. Gentile nations likewise fear to come out against God and they therefore persecute the Jews.”20)שמות רבה פּרשה נ״א פּיסקא ד׳.
Rabbi Chiya lived to a ripe old age and all of his sons grew up to be scholars. A special prayer of Rabbi Chiya is of great interest. It said: “May it be Thy will, oh Lord our God and God of our fathers, that You should turn our hearts to complete repentance, that we should not be shamed before our fathers in the world to come, that You should inspire our hearts with fear of Thy name and that You should remove us from that which You hate and that You should bring us near to that which You love and that You should be merciful to us for the sake of Your name.”21)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ד׳ הלכה ב׳.