My Hebrew Word – Gam
Gam – A righteous man
The Hebrew word gam means ‘also’. It has lots of secondary meanings: ‘all’, ‘although’, ‘certainly’, ‘either’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘what is more’, and many others. It is because of these many meanings that the word is so frequent.
The scholar Nahum Ish Gamzu lived in the 2nd century C.E. at the time of the Mishna. ‘Gamzu’ was probably the name of the village that he came from. However, the Talmud suggests that he was given this name because he used to respond to everything that happened to him with the phrase “gam zu le tova”, which means “this, too, is for the best”. He accepted his fate regardless of what happened, and thus was considered to have total trust in God.
We are told that Nahum was blind in both eyes, an amputee of both his arms and legs, and that his whole body was covered with boils. He used to lie in a rickety house with his feet in buckets of water, to prevent the ants from crawling over him. He was also a totally righteous man, which raises serious questions about Divine Providence and the fate of the righteous in this world.
Once, when his house was about to collapse, his students wished to evacuate him and also take out his possessions. Nahum suggested that they should remove the contents first. He explained that as he was such a righteous man, there was no fear that the house would collapse while he was in it. This begs the question: if Nahum was such a righteous man, why did such tragedy befall him?
Nahum answers the question himself. He tells how once, in his earlier life, he was on the way to visit his in-laws. A poor a man stopped him along the road and asked for sustenance. Nahum asked the man to wait while he got down from his donkey. While he was getting down the waiting man died. Nahum was very distressed by this. He called out, “Let my eyes, that showed no compassion, be blinded, the hands that showed no mercy on your hands – be cut off, the legs that have no mercy on your legs be amputated”, and before he calmed down, he continued, “and my body should be covered with boils”.
The stories about Nahum reflect a theological position which many of us find difficult. It suggests that there is always a reason for the hardships that befall us, even if they may seem to us insignificant. They also reflect a world view that God is much more demanding of the righteous, and they are punished much harder for their sins. It is their ability to withstand this punishment that sets them out as being righteous.
The stories about Nahum served as an inspiration for Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. There were many occasions when people would question of God’s Providence and would question the justice of God’s actions. A person like Nahum, who always accepted God’s Decree without question, remains a challenging role model to this day.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner is Av Bet Din of the European Masorti Bet Din and Director of Masorti Europe.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner writes a blog about the most frequently used words in the Hebrew language. The blog aims to give readers a basic 30-word vocabulary to help them on their journey to greater Jewish literacy. If you’re interested in reading more, or want to receive his blog postings on a regular basis, you can sign up at myhebrewwords.wordpress.com.