Let’s take a look at where the expression “Gam zu l’tovah” comes from. This article was written by Nissan Mindel.
“ Nahum Ish Gamzu and Rabbi Akiba were both men of endless faith in the Almighty. They were certain that anything that happened to them was good. How did they know it? Simply enough. They knew that nothing happens by accident or chance; that nothing happens without G‑d knowing it. Now G‑d is good, therefore, how can anything bad happen?
Of course, unpleasant things sometimes do happen, but that does not mean that they are bad. For example, medicine may be quite unpleasant to swallow; but who would say that medicine is bad because it is unpleasant?
Strangely enough, however, each one of them expressed his faith in a different way. Nahum used to say, “Gam zu l’tovah,” which in Hebrew means: “This is also for good.” In fact, it is believed that because he often repeated this saying, he was called “Gamzu.”
Rabbi Akiba on the other hand used to say, “Kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid,” which in Aramaic (the language most widely spoken by the Jewish people at that time, for Hebrew was spoken by the scholars) meant: “All that the Merciful One does, He does for good.”
Let me tell you what happened to them, as related in the Talmud.
Rabbi Nahum was once sent to Rome to try to persuade the Roman Emperor to be more kindly to the Jews. He was carrying a precious box, filled with gold and diamonds, a gift for the Emperor. On the way he stopped at an inn, where he stayed for the night. On the following morning he continued his journey, not knowing that the innkeeper had stolen the precious things from the box and filled it with sand and soil.
When Rabbi Nahum finally reached Rome and presented himself to the Emperor, he handed the box to the Emperor. On opening the box, it was found to contain nothing but sand and soil. The Emperor was filled with anger, thinking that the Jews wanted to mock him. Nahum was thrown into prison and certain death awaited him. However, Nahum was not dismayed and said, as Usual, “Gam zu l’tovah” – “this is also for good.”
At his trial, one of the Emperor’s advisers said that the Jews would certainly not have dared to mock the Emperor. He suggested, therefore, that perhaps this was no ordinary sand and soil. He had heard, the adviser said, that when Abraham, the first Jew, went to battle against Chedarlaomer and his confederate kings, he threw sand and soil at them, which G‑d turned into arrows and deadly weapons and in this way Abraham won the battle against the mighty kings. Maybe this sand and soil were of the same kind!
Now the Emperor had been at war for some time, but could not defeat his enemy. So he ordered this sand and soil to be used. Indeed, the miracle happened, and the enemy was defeated!
Nahum was immediately freed from prison and given many gifts and the petition of the Jews was granted.
So much for Nahum’s wonderful story. Now about Rabbi Akiba.
Rabbi Akiba also had a narrow escape from death, but in a different way. He was on his way to a city when the sun set and he. had to take shelter in the woods. It was a dark night. He lit the only candle he had. He also had a cock with him to wake him early in the morning, and a donkey on which he rode.
Now a strong wind blew out his candle and he remained in darkness.- The next moment the cock was snatched by an animal of prey and a similar fate befell his donkey. Each time Rabbi Akiba said,
“All that the Merciful One does is for good.”
In the morning when Rabbi Akiba arrived in the city he learned that a band of vicious robbers had passed through the forest and attacked the city. Had they known of Rabbi Akiba’s presence he would have suffered violence at their hands! So it was good that the candle’s light was blown out, that the cock was not there to crow, nor the donkey to bray!
Now the question arises, why did Rabbi Akiba use a different expression from that used by Rabbi Nahum? This is all the more surprising because Rabbi Akiba was Rabbi Nahum’s disciple, and you would expect the disciple to repeat his master’s saying in his master’s words. Then there is another question: Why did Rabbi Nahum express his words in Hebrew whereas Rabbi Akiba used the Aramaic dialect?
Before we give you the answer to these questions, let us for a moment consider the question of “good” and “evil.”
G‑d is good. He is not the source of evil. Everything that happens in this world should therefore be good, and, indeed, originally, as it comes from G‑d, it is good. However, by the time it actually takes place, it may, for some reason, result in a bad thing. For example: A loving father gives his son a toy to play with. That’s certainly a good thing. But then the son gets hurt by the improper use of it. That’s bad, but it’s not the father’s fault. The father wanted his son to enjoy the toy.
Then there is, as we mentioned earlier the case of the unpleasant medicine. The little boy who doesn’t know how good it is for him, yells and screams, and does not want to take it. But when he takes it, willingly or not, it is unpleasant for a moment but drives pain away for a long time.
So it is in life. There are two kinds of “evil”: a) A temporary setback which soon proves to be a blessing in disguise (like medicine). b) A more serious “evil,” such as sickness or even death, which seems to have no good at all in it but which, nevertheless, we believe to be for a good purpose known only to G‑d.
We who believe in One G‑d, the One Creator, who created both heaven and earth, light and darkness, heat and cold, and everything that exists, believe that the Creator of the whole world is purely good, and no evil can come from Him.
When one’s faith in this is as strong as that of Rabbi Nahum, and one’s piety as great too, one may be given the power to influence events in this world so that the good that originates from G‑d be seen and felt down here below, as it was intended Above. Thus Rabbi Nahum was able, in his great and boundless faith, to convert the very sand and soil into good, even to something better than the gold and precious things that had been stolen and replaced by the seemingly worthless sand and soil.
Rabbi Akiba lived in the next generation after Rabbi Nahum. The world was not the same in Rabbi Akiba’s time, as in the time of his master. The people were not up to the same standard of holiness and piety and were not worthy of the same revelation of G‑d’s light and of the same miracles. So, although Rabbi Akiba’s faith was as strong as that of Rabbi Nahum, the miracles that his faith called forth were more veiled, more hidden. The event itself did not show the good but it merely proved to be an indirect cause of it. At the same time, the “harm” suffered was very small compared to the good that came from it. This was the case with Rabbi Akiba that night when he was in the woods.
This will explain the difference in the expressions used by Rabbi Nahum and Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Nahum said, “This is also for good,” meaning that the event itself is good. Whereas Rabbi Akiba said, “All that G‑d does He does for good,” meaning that while the experience itself is unpleasant, it surely leads to good.
This will also explain the difference in the language used by the two Sages. For, as already mentioned, Hebrew was the language of the scholars in those days, whilst most people spoke the Aramaic dialect.
Now, Rabbi Nahum’s way of life was, obviously, of a very high order, and very few people enjoyed such powers to convert the very evil into good. That is why his way of life is expressed in Hebrew, the language which was not used commonly but rather by way of exception. Rabbi Akiba’s way of life, on the other hand, could be followed by wider sections of the people. Therefore, he expressed it in Aramaic, so that everybody should understand him and try to follow his way.