| Magazine Feature |

Root Words     

 A US military chaplain inspired Jewish soldiers with the secrets of lashon kodesh

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, family archives

Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1983

Yehoshua Steinberg is scaling a steep cliff, lugging his heavy rucksack and equipment. Pausing briefly to wipe the sweat off his forehead, he glances back to check on his group of recruits on this grueling predawn hike. They seem to have covered a lot of ground — but the terrain ahead looks far more rugged than anything the unit has encountered thus far. He takes a deep breath and pushes himself forward, ignoring the pangs of exhaustion that threaten to drag him down and end the drill in failure.

As Yehoshua trudges on, he reflects on his decision to join the United States Army. He had wanted to give back to this country, so hospitable to his people after all it had endured throughout history. But was it really worth all this? The young chaplain-to-be put his qualms aside and realigned himself with the importance of the task at hand. He knew that this was what he wanted to do — so he was ready to give it his all.

Indeed, Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg wound up spending three decades in the US military as a chaplain, serving with deep dedication — but there was a game-changing aspect of his work that he had not foreseen. His conventional duties as a chaplain — providing words of encouragement and faith to servicemen beset by the trials of training and the horrors of war — turned out to be a catalyst for an unconventional approach in reigniting the souls of Jews.

From the Bronx to Boot Camp


abbi Yehoshua Steinberg looks right at home sitting on his deck perched high in the hills surrounding Jerusalem, stroking his snow-white beard as he pores over an old tome, basking in the afternoon sun. His warm smile and winsome personality draws you in.

It’s when he starts recounting the tales from his life that things get really interesting. He regales listeners with stories about how he excelled at karate at age 12, and used those skills to scare off would-be muggers on the New York subway; how he once employed a group of terrifying-looking locals to build him a succah in the heart of war-torn Afghanistan; and how he once proved to a devout evangelical Christian in the US military that Mashiach had indeed not yet arrived (“Rabbi, you’re one dirty dog!” came the dumbfounded response in Southern twang). But then he’ll tell you all about his greatest passion: the clear divinity of Lashon Hakodesh, and the mind-blowing secrets hidden within its timeless words.

Yehoshua Steinberg grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s and ’70s. His childhood, in his words, “wasn’t all that interesting.” His father, Dr. David Steinberg, was a hardworking chemist with a strong predilection for chess. (He was officially one of the top 100 chess masters in the country in his time.) His mother, among her many talents, was an expert in taamei hamikra — taking after her father, who was the ritual director at Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan and was well-grounded in dikduk and trop. Yehoshua attended the Ramaz school in Manhattan as a child, and eventually studied at in Jerusalem at Rabbi Mordechai Elefant’s Yeshivas ITRI, where he received his semichah.

Yehoshua’s parents inculcated in their children the importance of hakaras hatov — especially for the country in which they lived. His paternal grandparents hailed from Ostroleka, Poland, and Yehoshua’s father, David, was well acquainted with the kinds of persecution they experienced.

“My parents often talked about the great chasadim that America did for the Jewish People,” Yehoshua relates. “They really viewed the country as Ronald Reagan described it — a shining city on a hill.”

And so, after returning to America, Yehoshua began teaching at Manhattan Day School — but he couldn’t tune out his deep passion for giving back to the country that had been so good to the Jews. At age 23, he decided to enlist in the US military, an environment where he could satisfy that passion, but also put his halachic and hashkafic knowledge to use to help his fellow Jews.

Chaplain in Training


lthough Yehoshua joined the military with the goal of becoming a chaplain, he was required to undergo the same initial training as the other recruits.

“The marches, the hoops, the barbed wires, the treks — I had to do them all,” he says.

The only major difference was that the Geneva Convention prohibits clergymen from wielding weapons, so he never trained with an actual rifle.

“Basically, we would get shot at, but we couldn’t shoot back,” he quips.

Those who joined the military in those days were very positive and enthusiastic; it was eight years after the Vietnam War, so the draft was long over, and anyone who enlisted was keen to be there. But the lack of mandatory service also meant that there weren’t any other frum Jews in the camp.

“My first big test at boot camp was getting kosher food,” he says. “The course manager called me in and told me, ‘I know you need special food — but we don’t have any of it. How would you like us to handle that?’

“I got nervous for a moment, but then I had an idea. ‘There’s an airline food company called Schreiber’s that produces loads of prepackaged kosher meals. Perhaps that would be a good source?’ They reached out to Schreiber’s and ordered food for the entire monthlong exercise in the forest.

“On the first day, we finished an eight-mile march and arrived at our first stop. They set up tables, and the ‘chow truck’ pulled up. What were they serving? Pork and beans.”

Yehoshua was ravenous. But before he could get too worked up, along came another slightly bigger truck. Out stepped a man wearing white gloves, holding the single item the truck was carrying: a sealed Schreiber’s meal. One small technicality: The meal was frozen solid. And it was in the middle of January, so it wasn’t going to just thaw on its own. Yehoshua ended up arranging for the truck driver to stick around for an hour so he could heat the frozen meal on the truck’s warm engine.

“And so, at 12 a.m., I finally got to eat my semi-defrosted Salisbury steak —basically a glorified burger,” he jokes.

The next morning, after Yehoshua davened in a quiet corner, he was ready to eat breakfast — but, once again, no luck: it was bacon and eggs. But then the “Steinberg” truck pulled up again, and the man with the white gloves emerged holding a delightful breakfast for the chaplain-to-be: a frozen-solid Salisbury steak.

The course manager had been unaware that there were different varieties of kosher food, so he simply ordered 90 Salisbury steaks for the duration of the wilderness course. Yehoshua quickly reached out to his maternal grandparents, owners of Mrs. Adler’s Gefilte Fish, and made a special order to save the day.

Later, when Yehoshua got engaged to Raizie Fendel, he had to draw upon expert salesmanship skills to convince his future in-laws that the military wouldn’t be too much for his new kallah.

“I was in the reserves, so I only had to do service once a year for a month,” he says.

This sounded rather benign — but it turned out that the month he was usually summoned for was around the Yamim Noraim and Succos. That was when Jewish soldiers needed the most support, as many of them had minimal exposure to the Yamim Tovim and didn’t really know how to celebrate them appropriately.

“The job of a chaplain is very similar to that of a social worker,” Rabbi Steinberg explains. “It’s all about reaching people and helping them make sense out of things that are going on in their lives. Of course, I always tried directing them back toward Torah.”

Although his duties required him to offer his services to all soldiers, regardless of their religion, Yehoshua was always searching for ways to draw in the Jewish ones. One surefire method was to set up a table with bagels, cream cheese, and lox. Without fail, that aroma from the fresh bagels always reeled in flocks of Jews.

But Yehoshua was looking for something more. He wanted to give lectures that would leave the recruits mesmerized; he wanted the cogs in their heads to be turning for days afterward, ultimately pulling them back with a thirst for more knowledge and more answers.

Verbal Bombs


lthough Yehoshua Steinberg’s maternal grandfather found dikduk and taamei hamikra fascinating, his grandson didn’t share that proclivity — at least, not in his early youth. The first time he was exposed to the depth of Lashon Hakodesh was when Rabbi Dov Lesser, a rebbi of his in Ohr Torah in Riverdale, quoted an idea from the Sefer Hashorashim L’Radak. Yehoshua’s interest was piqued, and after a quick perusal of the sefer, he learned that the Radak had uncovered a treasure trove of secrets behind the shorashim of words in the Holy Tongue.

“Many people are familiar with the derech of the Malbim,” Rabbi Steinberg explains. “He tends to focus on synonyms. He differentiates between dissimilar words that nonetheless share a common general meaning. Rashi does this very often as well.

“The Radak, however, emphasizes a different perspective. He takes words that derive from a single root, but often have disparate — and even opposite — meanings. He then reveals that these words actually share a common theme — ideas that the average person would never fathom on his own.”

Over the next decade or so, Yehoshua spent more time delving into the works of the Radak, seeking to quench his newfound thirst for the concealed meanings of the holy words of Lashon Hakodesh. At one point, he came across the sefer Haksav V’hakabbalah by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg.

He discovered there that while the Radak generally focused on words that shared three-letter shorashim, Rav Mecklenburg expanded this idea to shorashim sharing two letters — unlocking a whole new world of deep secrets. The idea that so many dissimilar words are inherently related totally blew Yehoshua’s mind. These subtle similarities contain profoundly impactful messages that reveal deeper truths and encourage self-perfection. But the main thought that kept racing through Yehoshua’s mind was simple: There was absolutely no way that this language was conceived by human beings.

Rabbi Steinberg shares some examples. “Let’s take a look at the pasuk of ‘Lo sisgodedu.’ Rashi explains this to mean that one may not mutilate himself. He proves this from a verse in Daniel, which uses the words ‘godu ilana’ for cutting down trees, revealing that the root gimmel-daled refers to the act of cutting. However, a well-known Chazal teaches that ‘Lo sisgodedu’ is a prohibition of making ‘agudos, agudos’ [literally “bundles, bundles”], teaching us to not create groups of Jews living within one community that diverge from each other in their customs. So this seems to be contradictory. The root gimmel-daled can mean severing two things from each other, but it can also mean coupling things together — as in eged or agudah.

“But the sifrei hamedakdekim reveal that this dual meaning comes to teach us a lesson. For instance, one may think highly of himself after establishing a new community or organization. This language reminds him that although he made an ‘agudah’ by grouping some likeminded individuals together — he also cut them off from their previous environment, in a sense. The Ribbono shel Olam is teaching us sensitivity — a new initiative may be exciting and groundbreaking, but make sure to not overlook the people who were left behind.”

Reb Yehoshua throws in one more case: “The same is true for riverbanks, which are called gedos hanahar. While the river cuts us off from accessing the land on the other side, it also connects everyone, by serving as a water source for both sides, and as vital means of transporting goods from city to city. So while the riverbanks are a great divide for some, they are also a great connector for others.”

One day while Yehoshua was in the reserves, he had an epiphany: Why not attempt to engage the recruits with these kinds of mind-boggling verbal secrets? If it could have such a positive effect on his own emunah — perhaps it could inspire these folks as well. He began incorporating these themes into his lectures — and the results were promising.

“It was a bit challenging at first, because the soldiers had no background in Lashon Hakodesh whatsoever,” he says. “But there was one thing they all had in common — English.”

Yehoshua began one lecture with the following: “Let’s play a little word game. Can anybody think of a connection between the words ‘frost’ and ‘tar’? No? Well, how about ‘lid’ and ‘frost’? How about ‘tar’ and ‘heresy’? And for the clincher, how about ‘frost’ and ‘atonement’?”

A furtive glance around the room showed that the recruits were all befuddled.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” the chaplain continued. “In G-d’s language, these words all share a common root — and there’s an important reason for that.”

Rabbi Steinberg went on to explain that in Lashon Hakodesh, the root chaf-pei-reish can be found in the word kefor (frost), kofer (tar), kapores (lid), kefirah (heresy), and kapparah (atonement). He then explained (based on the Ibn Ezra) that in all these instances, there is a form of covering or concealment taking place: frost completely covers the surface of the ground, tar completely covers the teivah and Moshe’s basket, and the kapores covers the aron.

We can glean from this shared root that heresy, kefirah, is just a covering over a pure soul; deep down, everyone truly believes, and it’s just our biases and influences that conceal our internal faith. (Soldiers readily relate to this concept, as seen in the well-known axiom, “There’s no atheist in a foxhole.”) He then concluded that just as G-d completely covers the earth with frost on a cold winter morning, He can easily bury our sins under the thick layer of love and prayer when we entreaty Him; hence the spelling of the word kapparah.

These lectures and one-on-one sessions had an indelible impact on many soldiers over the course of Yehoshua’s tenure. It was difficult for him to develop deep, longstanding kiruv relationships with soldiers, as the community was undergoing constant change; servicemen were often deployed in one area for just a few weeks before being whisked off to a battlefront, and the chaplain himself was periodically summoned to different areas for urgent matters.

Still, Yehoshua has been contacted many times over the years by former military personnel and their family members to express their gratitude for the influence he had on them. “In one heartwarming instance, a soldier emailed me many years after our encounter to share that, thanks to an inspiring conversation I once had with him, he enrolled in a baal teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem shortly after his release from active duty.

“Another was especially stirred by the Biblical Hebrew classes and joined a synagogue back home for the first time in his life, in order to continue learning. Others have sent me wedding invitations in Orthodox shuls or halls — some of whom had previously been engaged to non-Jews.”

Researching the Holy Tongue


ver the years of Yehoshua’s service, especially after making aliyah at age 32, he devoted his spare time to investigating the roots of our ancient tongue. Even after 9/11, when America launched into the War on Terror, and Yehoshua was deployed all around the globe — “My kids only survived those times thanks to our Skype sessions and my phenomenal eishes chayil (or eishes chayal, as the kids called her)” — he still spent hours doing his research. And as if it weren’t already self-evident, Divine providence made clear that this was Yehoshua Steinberg’s life mission on several occasions.

Perhaps the most astounding instance was in early 2000, when Yehoshua took note of a certain mechaber.

“My new favorite sefer at the time — Haksav V’hakabbalah — kept quoting an author known by the acronym ‘Rashap.’ I was fascinated by his insights, and I had to find out who he was. He was clearly one of the greatest masters in the field.”

After getting his hands on the English translation of Haksav V’hakabbalah by Rabbi Elie Munk, he found that the acronym stood for Rav Shlomo Pappenheim, a brilliant 18th-century commentator and linguist who served as rav of Breslau for many years.

“I desperately wanted to obtain his original sefer, titled Yeri’os Shlomo, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I resorted to leafing through the Jerusalem phonebook.”

Soon enough, Yehoshua found a listing for the name Rav Shlomo Pappenheim, and he immediately reached out to him.

It turned out that this contemporary Rav Pappenheim was a well-known elderly leader of the Eidah Hachareidis who had one of the biggest personal seforim libraries that Yehoshua had ever seen. Yehoshua asked Rav Pappenheim if he had the original sefer — and he swiftly fetched the book from the top left shelf, making it clear that he was quite familiar with it. He agreed to lend Yehoshua the sefer on condition that he returned it in a timely manner; the sefer had not been in print for many years.

As Yehoshua turned to leave, the elderly talmid chacham made one last remark.

“By the way, you may be surprised to learn that there is absolutely no familial relationship between me and the mechaber of that sefer,” he stated, as if it were a negligible detail. “We just happen to have the same name.”

“That was enough for me to know that Hashem clearly wanted me to do my research in these inyanim thoroughly,” Yehoshua says. He had done his simple hishtadlus — and was led to the sefer in an ostensibly random way.

The Veromemanu Foundation


abbi Yehoshua Steinberg soon expanded his proficiency in the field to include the writings of Machberes Menachem (often quoted by Rashi), Rabbeinu Yonah Ibn Janach, and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, among others. In 2002, he founded the Veromemanu Foundation — based on the words, “v’romemanu mikol lashon” from Kiddush for Yom Tov — dedicated to disseminating the works of Chazal, the Rishonim, and Acharonim on the deeper meanings of two- and three-letter Lashon Hakodesh root words. This comes in the form of regular lectures and publications on the topic, which consistently mesmerizes Jews from all walks of life.

“The early beginnings of the Foundation started while I was mobilized in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, following the 9/11 horror,” he says. “While I was kept very busy attending to troops preparing for deployment during the day, my nights were relatively quiet — especially compared to those back home, with my wife and nine kids.

“My first undertaking was transcribing Rav Shlomo Pappenheim’s 1784 edition of Yeri’os Shlomo, and his later Cheshek Shlomo, into digital format, to make them more accessible and searchable, and to edit and annotate them. However, I soon realized that the typing was hard on my fingers, so I enlisted some of my ‘older’ boys (one was ten, the other 14) in Israel to do some of the heavy typing for $5 an hour. Shortly afterwards, I hired an actual typist to digitize the sifrei hashorashim of the Radak and the Ribag. This pattern continued when I was deployed to Kosovo, Bosnia, and Germany over the next few years, with other important works, such as Rav Yehuda Ibn Hayyuj’s sifrei dikduk and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentaries on Chumash and Tehillim.”

When he was stationed in Germany, Yehoshua took advantage of the treasure trove of Jewish books stolen by the Nazis then found in the major libraries around the country. He wasted no time in ordering microfilms of ancient manuscripts, including some of those used by Rav Zvi Filipkowski, who published the first complete edition of Machberes Menachem in 1854. He also managed to contact the late Professor Angel Saenz-Badillo of Madrid, who had published an annotated edition of Machberes — and graciously sent him the digital text to use for his research and future publications.

Since retiring from the Army in 2013, Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg has devoted himself full-time to Veromemanu, overseeing a staff of talmidei chachamim (including his own sons), working simultaneously on releasing seforim, essays on the parshiyos, and answering questions that are regularly sent in to the Foundation’s various forums.

The Veromemanu Foundation is currently working on a mammoth undertaking: a comprehensive compendium and commentary on all the shorashim in Lashon Hakodesh, from alef to tav.

“We’ve so far completed from alef to zayin, but we’re making rapid progress,” Rabbi Steinberg discloses. “It will probably wind up comprising eight volumes.”

The sefer compiles the commentaries of the greatest masters of Lashon Hakodesh in Jewish history onto one page; it includes the Radak, Rabbeinu Yonah Ibn Janach, Rav Hirsch, Haksav V’hakabbalah, Machberes Menachem — and the novel Nimukei Lashon, which presents the reader with fresh chiddushim from Veromemanu’s experts.

The Foundation is also about to publish a sefer called Nifla’os Sfas Hakodesh, along with an English version titled Wonders of the Holy Tongue. This sefer is based on the parshiyos; it focuses on a couple of obscure words in each parshah and demystifies their roots and hidden meanings. The team working on these volumes include some of the top medakdekim in Israel, including the inimitable Rav Yaakov Loifer of Ramat Shlomo, and word expert Rav Reuven Chaim Klein.

“These tremendous talmidei chachamim pay close attention to far more than just shorashim,” enthuses Rabbi Steinberg. “They are fluent in the subtle nuances of the language known as hanachas hayesod, davar v’hifucho, and of course Chazal’s interpretations of each word as reflected in the aggadic and halachic Midrashim, as well as the Gemara. You can rest assured that these works are all-encompassing, b’ezras Hashem.”

It turns out that what appeared at first to be a smooth technique for engaging US military recruits was really a far more inclusive mission. Most people aren’t equipped with the proper tools to unravel the mysteries of the Holy Tongue, and Veromemanu is striving to provide just that.

Veromemanu’s impact is evidently spreading quickly. It boasts over 10,000 members in its Facebook group, Biblical Hebrew Etymology, and it consistently receives myriad language-related questions on that forum and through other means (from which will shortly be published an English-language Q&A sefer, im yirtzeh Hashem). Queries come from learned rabbanim, as well as from those with little or no background in Yiddishkeit or Lashon Hakodesh who have become enthralled with the depth and profound lessons the Sacred Tongue has to offer. (In fact, they also receive questions from non-Jews on many occasions — which they make sure to address in a manner that is mekadesh Sheim Shamayim.)

Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg concludes with an important thought: “Remember, it’s not just people far from Yiddishkeit who are thirsty for depth. So many regular Jews daven all the time, learn all the time, say a lot of Tehillim — but they don’t connect to the underlying words in a thoughtful, reflective way. If we can only show them how much meaning there is in every word of the Torah and our tefillos — their entire avodas Hashem will surely be rejuvenated.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1018)

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