The Torah in Parshat Vayechi teaches us of the passing of Yaakov Avinu and his burial, as well as the death of Yosef. Much of the traditional Jewish understanding of what should occur at the time of death is taken from this parsha, such as the practice of the firstborn son (bechor) closing the eyes of the father upon death (Yoreh Deah 352:4: ma’atzimin einav shel met; Bereshit 46:4 teaches that when Yaakov Avinu passed, Yosef, his firstborn, closed his father’s s eyes: Veyosef, yashit yado al eineicha). The notion that what we do for a person who passes away is sacred, and a task of monumental significance, is derived from the request Yaakov makes of Yosef to have him buried not in Egypt, but with his fathers in Ma’arat haMachpelah, the cave in Hebron:
Veshachavti, im-‘avotai, un’satani mimitzrayim, ukevartani bikvuratam; vayomar, anochi e’eseh chidvarecha. Vayomer, hishave’ah li–vayishava’, lo; vayishtachu yisra’el, al-rosh hamitah.
“But when I sleep with my fathers, thou shalt carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place.’ And he said: ‘I will do as thou hast said.’ And he said: ‘Swear unto me.’ And he swore unto him. And Israel bowed down upon the bed’s head.” (Bereshit 47:30-31). Rashi, commenting on this verse, explains that attending to the burial of our departed ones is a “chesed shel emet,” a true kindness: Chesed she’osin im hametim, hu chesed shel emet, she’eino metzapeh letashlum gemul. The mercy shown to the dead is “mercy of truth” (true, disinterested kindness) since one cannot hope for any reward. This principle is the foundation for the existence of the chevra kadisha, the sacred society which is tasked with attending to the burial needs of our loved ones, principally the rituals of taharah (the ritual washing and dressing in shrouds of the deceased) and shmirah. One of the major aspects of traditional Jewish care for the deceased once death has occurred is the practice of shmirah, the act of guarding the deceased, an act which profoundly speaks to our belief in the dignity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of G-d (b’tzelem Elokim), worthy of care and attention, even once death has occurred. In our generation, this is a practice which as fallen into disuse in many sectors of the Jewish community, unfortunately, despite the beauty and meaning that shmirah affords the soul. Many unfortunately believe that halakha does not require shmirah in our days (an inaccurate understanding of the sources), despite the origins of the practice in Talmudic times.
The obligation is first mentioned in the Gemara itself, within the context of a discussion concerning whether one who is involved in performing one mitzvah is exempt from performing other (positive, time-bound) mitzvot. The implication there is that shmirah is indeed a mitzvah and obligatory (Brachot 18a), thus the principle osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah (that one who is involved in performing one mitzvah is exempt from performing other mitzvot) applies to one who is a shomer (and the obligation to guard the deceased is considered so important that one doing so is patur, exempt, from mitzvot such as kriat shema, hanachat tefillin, sukkah, shofar, megillah, and the like):
“Vehatanya: hameshamer et hamet, af al pi she’eino meto — patur mikeri’at shema umin hatefillah umin hatefilin umikol mitzvot ha’amurot batorah.”
The beraita teaches: One who watches over the deceased, even if it is not his deceased relative, is exempt from the recitation of Shema, from prayer and from tefillin, and from all mitzvot mentioned in the Torah. Thus, where one watches over the deceased, but it is not his deceased relative, the shomer is exempt.
Hayu shnayim — zeh meshamer vezeh koreh, vezeh meshamer vezeh koreh. The beraita continues to ask, what if there are two people guarding the deceased? In such a case, they take turns; “this one watches and that one recites Shema, and then that one watches and this one recites Shema.” Ben Azzai teaches that if both were traveling on a boat with the deceased, they are permitted to set the deceased in one corner of a boat and pray in another corner of the boat (Ben Azzai omer: hayu ba’im bisfinah — manicho bezavit zo, umitpallelin sheneihem bezavit acheret). This opinion is not concerned for the presence of rodents and their potential to desecrate the deceased, but the other opinion (brought in the beraita) is concerned for rodents, and thus, the shomer’s attention should fully be on guarding the deceased from such matters, rather than allowing for both to pray at the same time (Ma beinayhu? Amar ravina: chosheshin le’achbarim ika beinayhu. Mar savar: chayeshinan. Umar savar: lo chayeshinan).
Thus, the Talmud itself establishes that a shomer is needed to guard the deceased from possible desecration by rodents, and by extension, other physical damages, such as fire, bandits, and the like. The need for a shomer to prevent physical degradation of the remains is also referred to in a passage in Shabbat 151b:
Aval Og melech haBashan met — tzarich leshomero min hachuledah umin ha’achbarim, shene’emar: umora’achem vechitechem yihyeh, kol zeman she’adam chai — eimato mutelet al haberiyot, keivan shemet — batelah eimato.
Even if Og, the king of Bashan, passes, it is necessary to have a shomer to protect even him from mice or weasels, as the verse says “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the heavens” (Bereshit 9:2). The Gemara teaches: As long as a person is living, they are feared by the animals, but once they die, they are no longer feared.
In Talmudic times, there were clear physical sources of nivul hamet (degradation of the deceased) which required a shomer to provide protection from such degradation. It is clear from the Gemara itself that a shomer is engaged in an obligation which exempts them from performing other mitzvot. It should be mentioned that because we learn the principle osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah within the context of guarding the deceased in the Gemara, it is essential that a shomer not leave the chapel to go to shul, hear shofar, sit in a sukkah, hear Megillat Esther, etc.
It is obvious that the shomer is halakhically exempt from fulfilling these mitzvot, and it is a great halakhic abuse that shomrim from some so-called “chevra kadisha” groups will leave the deceased alone, often for many hours, on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. This is strictly forbidden. Furthermore, a shomer should not put on a tallit or wrap tefillin in proximity to the deceased, and they should tuck in their tzitzit while in the chapel, so as to not transgress the prohibition of lo’eg la’ra’ash, mocking the deceased by performing mitzvot in their presence that they can no longer perform (Mishnah Berurah 72:3). However, even if the shomer is sitting a distance of more than daled amot away from the deceased, they are not permitted to detract from their shmirah by engaging in mitzvot which they are exempt from performing. Shmirah is so important that the shomer may not engage in davening, laying tefillin, and the like while they are to be guarding the deceased.
However, there are also more metaphysical reasons for why shmirah is required, and even though the physical damages of rodents and the like are no longer as much of a concern as they once were with the advent of modern mortuaries and refrigeration, there is still a halakhic obligation to have a shomer. Rav Avraham Danzig, the Chochmat Adam, writes, that there exists a great obligation to have a shomer at all times guarding over the deceased: tzarich sheyihyeh shomer omed tamid etzel hamet. He continues to say that this obligation is important not only for reasons of physical degradation, but also out of concern for the state of the neshama at this time of transition from this world to the next:
Chiyuv gadol lishmor hamet vechiyyuv gadol al ha’avelim kol zman shehamet beveitam sheyihyeh sham shomer bein bayom uvein balaylah veyihyeh na’ur velo yashan upeshita beveit hataharah shesham yoter karov umetzavim sham achbarim, ruchot ra’ot shetzarich shemirah vera’iti be’einai shehamet munach sham belo shomer veheshivu li shebeveit hataharah lo shechichei achbarim vezeh sheker muchlat va’afilu ledivreihem de’eino shechiach mikol makom tzarich shemirah (emphasis mine).
The Chochmat Adam writes that it is a great obligation to guard the deceased, and it is even incumbent upon mourners (to arrange a shomer) for every moment the deceased has yet to be buried, including in the place where the niftar passed away (our chevra kadisha thus routinely sends shomrim to perform shmirah in hospitals, private residences, nursing homes, morgues, and many other settings, prior to when the deceased is brought into the funeral home), day and night. He writes that in his days, it was common for rodents to infest the taharah facility, but even where this is not a concern, the obligation still exists because there is a concern that evil spirits (ruchot ra’ot) affect the neshama negatively. The presence of a shomer provides comfort and spiritual protection to the soul. He adds that it is an outright falsehood to claim that there is no practical need for a shomer, and in all places, shmirah is required (Matzevat Moshe 4).
The notion of spiritual care provided to the deceased is even alluded to earlier, in the Rema’s glosses on the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 373:5). There, the halakha is brought that a kohen (who ordinarily may not come under the same roof as a corpse) may defile himself in order to attend to the needs of a deceased relative (halakhic krovim), even if the defilement is not required for the corpse’s needs. The Rema states that such a kohen is permitted on shabbat (where one may not bury until the next day) to defile himself, including for the purpose of providing shmirah for the deceased relative, so the soul does not lie in a state of disgrace and bewilderment.
The Rema is paskening that the obligation of shmirah is so important that even a kohen may defile himself in order to be a shomer for a first-degree relative, and that such shmirah is required for the sake of the dignity of the deceased, Kedei shelo yehe mutal bebizayon, so that they not lie disgraced. The force of these halakhic sources clearly refutes the notion that shmirah is a mere custom or ornamentation. Rather, it is an obligation codified into halakhic praxis by none other than our acharonim. This includes the Chochmat Adam, whose works were so revered that even R’ Chaim Volozhiner wrote an approbation for the sefer (despite his general opposition to digests of halakha) and the Chatam Sofer told his disciples that when deciding halakha, they can rely on the Chochmat Adam when consulting the Shulchan Aruch itself was not possible. Furthermore, the Nitei Gavriel, Hilkhot Aveilut I, 9:1 (R’ Gavriel Tzinner) writes that to leave the niftar alone without a shomer is “ke’ilu azavuhu k’kli she’ein chafetz bo,” akin to leaving them abandoned like a vessel that has no need or serves no purpose, a worthless object (brought in the Talmud Yerushalmi).
In modern times, R’ Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, the noted posek hador for American Jewry, addressed the nature of the requirement for shmirah in a responsum to a Rav Shimon Gabel of Katowice. Emphatically, he says that a shomer is required for purposes of kavod hameit (honoring the deceased) nowadays, even if there is not a concern for physical damagers such as rodents and weasels. Yet, he argues that because of modern refrigeration and caskets, where rodents and weasels are not a concern, the shomer may function in a yotzei venichnas capacity, allowing him to sporadically check on the remains and thus briefly leave the niftar for reasons such as eating and using the restroom (Igrot Moshe YD I:225). According to Reb Moshe, a shomer may be seated away from the remains as long as his focus remains on watching the niftar, and as long as he intermittently checks on the remains (“yotzei venichnas” is defined as a shiur of coming and going, practically no more than 15-20 minutes, according to Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky, zt”l). Thus, the shomer, if they need to step away from the area of the refrigerator, should be careful to not allow more than 15-20 minutes to pass without checking on the remains, although it is sufficient that they be in the same building as the niftar.
Practically, the shomer is to say tehillim (psalms) for the deceased, and may also learn mishnayot as well. This provides spiritual care and protection for the neshama, as described the Chochmat Adam. Even in earlier works of Midrash, which point to the confused state of the soul in its liminal state between the time of death and the time of burial. For instance, Bereshit Rabbah 100:7 teaches that the soul hovers over the body while the remains are unburied (Tanei Bar Kappara, kol takfo shel evel eino ela bashlishi, ad telata yomin nafsha tayeva al kivrah, sevurah hi shehi chozeret… Bar Kappara teaches, until 3 days after death, the soul keeps returning to the grave, thinking that it will return to the body).
Vayikra Rabbah 18:1 teaches, “Abba bereih deRav Papi, v’ R’ Yehoshua deSichnin b’shem Rabbi Levi kol telata yomin nafsha taysa al gufah saverah dehi chazerah leih,” For three days after death the soul hovers over the body, intending to reenter it. Thus, the recitation of psalms and the learning of Torah serves to provide protection and honor or the deceased. The Nitei Gavriel, Hilkhot Aveilut I, 10:8, writes, “mutar lomar tehillim v’limud mishnayot shezehu lichvodo u’l’zechuto shel haniftar, v’ken nohagu gedolei Yisrael.” It is absolutely permitted to say tehillim and mishnayot within 4 amot of the deceased, and gedolim were accustomed to do so This serves as a merit and source of honor for the deceased. Our chevra kadisha requires that the shomer recite tehillim 20 minutes of each hour, and the rest of the time is to be spent engaged in torah study.
While this article serves as a brief introduction to the halakhic basis for shmirah, it is by no means exhaustive, and further articles will explore the sources and origins for our practices of chesed shel emet, showing kindness and honor to the deceased.