The sanctity of life plays an unquestionably major factor in Jewish law. Not everyone, however, is familiar with how strongly Judaism stresses not only the sanctity of life, but also the sanctity of the dead. From the moment a person passes away, even in the days or moments leading up to death, Jewish law and custom focuses on treating the dying person with the utmost respect.
While a great majority of the care for the body of the deceased and the preparation for burial is generally taken care of by the chevra kadisha, the Jewish burial society, the mitzvah of shmirah, guarding the body, is one that is often performed by the deceased’s friends and family.
The custom of having a shomer (male watchperson) for a deceased male or a shomeret (female watchperson) for a deceased female, is quite ancient. When it is referred to in the Talmud, the act of shmirah is stated as an obvious role that a person takes on: e.g. “One who watches a dead [body], even though it is not his own [relative], is exempt from the recital of the Shema” (Talmud Brachot 18a). From the moment of death until the burial, the body of the deceased is never left alone. In ancient times, the practical reason for guarding the body was to protect it from desecration by vermin – a need less obvious in today’s modern society. The spiritual concept for guarding the body, however, is the idea that the soul of the deceased hovers near the body after death. The shmirah (guarding) brings comfort to the soul, as well as to the immediate members of the family.
Shmirah, which is often divided into shifts, is a highly regarded mitzvah. It is customary for a shomer/shomeret to recite Tehillim (Psalms) during their shift and to refrain from eating and drinking in the presence of the body. Out of respect, one performing the act of shmirah should also avoid such activities as chatting in general or talking on one’s cell phone.
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