In the context of discussing the mitzvah of kisuy ha-dam – the halakhah that requires the blood of wild animals and birds to be covered after ritual slaughter (see Vayikra 17:13), which is the focus of the current perek (=chapter) – the Gemaratells a story about Rabbi Hiyya. Rabbi Hiyya’s flax became infested with insects, and Rabbi’s advice to him was to slaughter a bird over water so that when the worms would smell the blood they would abandon the flax. While the Gemara is initially concerned with why Rabbi suggested slaughtering a bird over water with no apparent concern for the obligation of kisuy ha-dam (ultimately the Gemara received testimony that Rabbi’s suggestion was to kill the bird in a manner that would have rendered it non-kosher, and therefore free of the obligation to cover its blood), eventually the Gemara turns to another question: How could such a thing happen to Rabbi Hiyya?
How came it that his flax was infested with insects? Did not Rabin bar Abba (others say Rabbi Abin bar Sheva) declare that from the time that the people of the Exile came up to the Land of Israel there ceased to be shooting stars, earthquakes, storms and thunders in Israel, the people’s wines never turned sour and their flax was never blighted; and the Rabbis set their eyes upon (i.e. credited) Rabbi Hiyya and his sons?
The Gemara responds that although the whole world benefited from their merits, they, themselves, did not.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba was one of the last of the Tanna’im – a pupil and colleague of Rabbi Yehudah haNassi. Originally from Babylonia, his family genealogy was linked to King David. His twin sons, Yehudah and Hizkiah were known for their piety; his twin daughters, Pazi and Tavi, headed families of important scholars.
We learn of the importance of the family from the statement of Resh Lakish (see Sukkah daf 20a) who taught that whenTorah was forgotten in Israel, Ezra came from Babylon and reestablished it; when it was forgotten a second time, Hillel the Babylonian came and reestablished it; when it was forgotten a third time, Rabbi Hiyya came and reestablished it. Furthermore, the Gemara in Bava Metzia (85b) suggests that they were parallel to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, and had they strengthened themselves in prayer, they could have brought the Messiah before his time.