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A rite of unconditional kindness accompanying the dead between death and burial.
It is thought that between death and burial, the soul of the deceased is present and hovering near the body, perhaps traveling back and forth between the body and the home in which it lived, aware of what is going on, but confused as to where it belongs, since it is now separated from the body with which it identified for a lifetime.
Jewish tradition explains shmirah in two ways — a physical guarding and a spiritual guarding. Physical guarding is designed to protect the body. Originally, this was protection from animals, body thieves, and others who might try to violate the body in some way. Many of these concerns are not as relevant today but the practice continues as a way to honor the dead and support the soul in transition.
Thus, shmirah is also about guarding the spirit of the person who has died. It is a process of soul guiding, in the hours and days after a death, the deceased hovers in close proximity of the body. Reading of Psalms during the time of shmirah is designed to help the soul move on. Some prefer to call it “accompaniment” as we are ensuring that the soul does not feel alone during this time in which it is adjusting to not having a body. It is traditionally done from the time of death until burial.
During this liminal time Jews demonstrate ultimate kindness by keeping the soul company, comforting it, and reassuring it as it adjusts to its next phase in the olam haba, the world to come. This act of compassion takes the form of “watchers,” people who sit with or near the body, reciting Psalms or other Produced by the Jewish Association for Death Education ©2023 All Rights Reserved readings, praying, and talking to the soul directly. These watchers are called shomrim (people who sit with the dead), and the act of doing this kindness is called shmirah, both names coming from the Hebrew root shin-mem-resh having to do with “guarding” (the body). Sitting shmirah does not require touching the dead, or even being in the same room with the body, although often shomrim are within sight of the refrigerator that holds the deceased, and sometimes are in the same room as the casket.
Shmirah requires trusting intuition and one’s inner voices, listening inwardly for a response and being attentive to a meaningful experience. Soul guiding is not a science, it’s an art.
Shmirah often involves many people, over a number of days, as burial today is not always immediate, and can be delayed in order for family members to assemble from distant locations. Often shomrim will sit for a few hours, then be replaced by others who sit for a while, then others, and so forth for the entire time between death and burial. Sometimes, shomrim sit in pairs, especially if one or both are new to the task. These shomrim are often volunteers but can be paid personnel whose job it is to do comforting in this way.
Each community handles this differently; some Chevrot Kadisha (“holy society” – those who care for the dead) arrange for people to be present to ensure the soul is not left alone. In some cases, a candle is lit to represent the intention to comfort the soul, as well as the light of the soul itself and the holiness of life. Those who do shmirah are usually not the primary mourners. Sometimes they include grandchildren, community volunteers, friends, or young adults. In some communities, teens are matched with adults. In some communities, non-Jews do shmirah along with Jews. Shmirah can be a good way for out-of-town relatives to re-connect with the deceased and the mourning process, especially when an online “virtual” shmirah arrangement has been set up.
Some communities have a “shmirah box” in which various readings and books of Psalms are included, so the shomrim can choose among these during their time with the deceased. Other communities simply have such resources available at the funeral home where the body is resting. It is up to the shomer (a person who sits with the dead) as to what they choose to read or say while with the deceased.
What shomrim do during shmirah is up to the individual. Most read or chant Psalms, poems, songs or other relevant texts (that the deceased might enjoy) during their time with the deceased. Some will speak words of comfort to the newly departed soul, who is believed to be hovering near the body. Just being there is also considered comforting, so periods of silent contemplation and meditation are also acceptable, as long as the focus is on comforting the dead and being present for them.
Learn More about Shmirah:
- Textual origins for Shmirah.
- IKAR Guidelines for Shemirah, information intended to help shomrim understand what to do.
- Gail Tosto’s article about What Shmirah Means to Shomrim helps newcomers understand what
this work feels like.
- Shomrim Handbook Outline by Susan Barnes, gives local leaders guidance how to create a
handbook for local volunteers.
- Virtual Shmirah Library is a list of resources for performing shmirah when not able to be near the
body of the deceased. This list was compiled by Gail Tosto.
- Washington Jewish Week article by Richard Greenberg, Associate Editor.
- Profound Shmirah Experiences in Recent Times.
Produced by the Jewish Association for Death Education ©2023 All Rights Reserved