Shemira (Hebrew: שמירה, lit. "watching" or "guarding") refers to the Jewish religious ritual of watching over the body of a deceased person from the time of death until burial. A male guardian is called a shomer (שומר) and a female guardian is a shomeret (שומרת). Shomrim (plural, שומרים) are people who perform shemira. In Israel shemira refers to all forms of guard duty, including military guard duty. An armed man or woman appointed to patrol a grounds or campus for security purposes would be called a shomer or shomeret. Outside of Israel the word is used almost exclusively in regards to the religious ritual of guarding the body of the deceased.
Historically, shemira was a form of guard duty, to prevent the desecration of the body prior to burial. The body guards, “guardians of the dead,” perform a thankless task—literally. In the Talmud, in b. Berachot 18a and Shabbat 151b, the purpose of shemira was to guard against rodents, as rodents fear the living and not the dead, an idea derived from Genesis 9:2 which puts the fear of man into other living creatures. Shemira is practiced out of respect for the dead, in that they should not be abandoned prior to their arrival in their new "home" in the ground. This serves as a comfort for the surviving loved ones as well.
According to midrashic tradition, the soul hovers over the body for three (Genesis Rabbah 100:7 and Leviticus Rabbah 18:1) or seven (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 34) days after death. The human soul is somewhat lost and confused between death and before burial, and it stays in the general vicinity of the body, until the body is interred. The shomrim sit and read aloud comforting psalms during the time that they are watching the body. This serves as a comfort for both the spirit of the departed who is in transition and the shomer or shomeret. Traditionally, shomrim read Psalms or the book of Job. Shomrim are also encouraged to meditate, pray, and read spiritual texts, or texts about death. Shomrim are prohibited from eating, drinking, or smoking in the shemira room out of respect for the dead, who can no longer do these things.
Performing shemira is considered a mitzvah. The Shulhan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 341:6) explains that one who is guarding the body is exempt from all other mitzvot. Shomrim are allowed to be paid as this mitzvah is not benefiting from the dead, but helping to relieve the burden of the relatives whose duty it is to guard the body. In some communities individuals are paid to do this, while in others it is done on a volunteer basis, often by friends of the family of the deceased or members of a chevra kadisha, Jewish burial society. It is not necessary for the shomrim to be literally watching the body. The body may be covered or in a closed casket already, but there should be someone present in the room at all times. In some cases this may extend to the next room, provided that the door to the room of the deceased is open. Other traditions consider it acceptable as long as someone is present in the building.
- Raphael, Dr. Simcha Paull (1994). Jewish Views of the Afterlife. Jason Aaronson, Inc., pp. 415-416.
- Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth 18
- Babylonian Talmud: Shabbath 151
- Raphael, Simcha Paull (2009). Jewish Views of the Afterlife (second edition). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., p. 140.
- Goodman, Rabbi Arnold M. A Plain Pine Box: A Return to Simple Jewish Funerals and Eternal Traditions, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., pp. 65–68.
- Ginsberg, Joanna (November 20, 2008). "A mitzva for the dead, a comfort for the living." New Jersey Jewish News.
- Freehof, Solomon Bennett (1976). Reform Jewish practice and its rabbinic background. KTAV Publishing House, p. 107.