When I was in the IDF, I did a lot of guard duty. Plus, living in Gush Etzyon, during the ’80s, we were required to do night guarding in our community twice a month. Even though I may not be an expert on the topic, I definitely know enough to inform you: It’s extremely boring!! It’s up there with watching grass grow or paint dry. You’re basically just waiting for your shift to end. So, it’s a little disappointing to me that SHMIRA or guarding is a major component of our Pesach observances. It all begins in Chapter 12 of Shmot, where that dreaded term appears in three guises.
The first appearance concerns the KORBAN PESACH (Paschal offering, a lamb or goat). We’re told, ‘And it will be for you as a MISHMERET (verse 6).’ This term is variously translated as: keep close watch, take care, a safeguarding. Rashi says that this is a demand for examining the animal for invalidating blemishes (MUM). Prof. Robert Alter, recognizing that this is just the first of numerous appearances, explains: The Hebrew mishmeret is an abstract noun derived from the verbal stem sh-m-r, which has meanings that range from ‘keep’ to ‘watch’ to ‘observe’ (in the ritual sense); all these meanings come to play as the root is repeated through the passage.
The next appearance of this verb is, perhaps, the most famous: And you shall observe (U’SHMATEM, maybe ‘celebrate’) the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you shall observe (U’SHMARTEM, again) this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever (verse 17).
This is the source of the concept of SHMURA MATZA, whose grain is closely watched from the time of harvest until the baking. Even ‘regular MATZA’ (MATZO PESHUTA) is carefully monitored, just from a later stage of preparation, either milling or kneading. In all cases, those involved in the preparation should have in mind that these MATZOT are for the sake of the MITZVA of MATZA. And the second U’SHMARTAM in the verse? Is about the special nature of this first day of Pesach, which involves many observances which require care.
Then we come to verses 24 and 25: And you shall observe (U’SHMARTEM) this event as an ordinance for you and your children forever. When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe (U’SHMARTEM) this rite.
The Ibn Ezra explains that the first ‘observe’ emphasizes that the Pesach offering must be observed forever, and then the second verse reminds us that the observance of offerings is dependent upon Eretz Yisrael. This is an important reminder that the Exodus was aimed at the settlement of the Holy Land. We left Egypt to go to Israel.
And, finally, verse 42: It was a night of watching (LEIL SHIMURIM) by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so, this same night is a night of watching (LEIL SHIMURIM) kept for the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.
What is meant by this expression LEIL SHIMURIM? The most famous interpretation is that Jews are safe on this night. This is why we open the door for Elyahu, and drink 4 cups, even though we don’t like even numbers. The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 12b) understands this to mean that God had set aside this evening for special events from the time of Creation. The Midrash counts many events which happen on this night: Avimelech had his dream saving Sarah, Lavan had his dream saving Ya’akov, God appeared to Bilaam, Sancherev’s army was destroyed outside Yerushalayim, King Achashveirosh couldn’t sleep, and the future complete redemption, may it come speedily in our days.
So, there you have the six times our SHIM-MEM-RESH, meaning watch, guard, or observe, appears in our chapter. However, just for comparison one other word appears once in our section, and that is ZIKARON (verse 14), meaning ‘memory’. I believe that this root is there for comparison, to let us know that on this special night ‘remembering’ or ‘mentioning’ isn’t enough. We have other mitzvot where ZECHIR is sufficient, but we must carefully preserve the historic experience of this special night.
So, how can accomplish SHMIRA, as opposed to ZECHIRA? According to Rav Soloveitchik, the answer is TALMUD TORAH, Torah study. He said on this evening, ‘there is SIPPUR YETZI’AT MITZRAYIM, which is actually a mitzva of Talmud Torah and MESORA (transmission of the tradition).’ Rav Yair Kahn of Yeshivat Har Etzion further explained, ‘SIPPUR is meant to revive the past and infuse it into the present, whereas ZECHIRA serves to recall the past and to leave it there, while reaching the conclusions relevant to the present.’
On this special night, we perform a vigil of story and study to make this unique night significant to our lives and our destiny. That’s the greatest form of SHEMIRA, and must be the opposite of boring.