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Shmira: The Mitzvah of Being Present for the Dead


by the Chevra Kadisha

In order to honor the deceased, and to comfort the mourners, Jewish rituals and practices at the time of death have evolved. Kehilla’s Chevra Kadisha (“Holy Society”) engages in the traditional ritual of Tahara, preparing and purifying the physical body for burial. Our community organizes shiva minyans and provides condolence meals to families in mourning; and our service leaders conduct funerals and memorial services. As a community, we also have the opportunity and obligation to perform shmira, the guarding and watching over the body until burial.

Originally, shmira meant exactly “guarding”: protecting the body from desecration by natural or human means (2 Samuel 21: 1-14). “Guarding” itself may be unnecessary in modern times, but in the tradition of enabling the spirit to be at rest, we sit next to the body, or in a nearby room, reciting Psalms, meditating, or reading other spiritually uplifting material in honor of the deceased. Some believe that the soul is in the vicinity and that reading the Psalms helps it to move on. Whatever one’s beliefs about the afterlife and the soul, watching over the body and keeping it company speaks to a deep human need not to abandon our loved ones.

Shmira can fulfill both “honoring the deceased” and “comforting the mourners.” It has a ripple effect beyond the deceased. Knowing that a community representative is with their loved one brings comfort to the family; and performing the mitzvah of shmira is an opportunity for the shomer (watcher) to withdraw from the business of everyday life to reflect with and on the departed. Those who do shmira are usually not the mourners: sometimes they’re grandchildren, sometimes they’re community volunteers, sometimes older teens.
Are you interested in being called for this mitzvah? Perhaps you are a nightowl who would be willing to spend two to four hours in quiet reflection. Perhaps you are one of those early risers who wouldn’t mind setting aside a gym workout once in awhile to perform this mitzvah; or you are any other community member who feels able to give up a few hours on the spur of the moment to accompany the spirit of the departed on its last journey. Kehilla’s Chevra Kadisha and Spiritual Life Practices Committee would like to develop a roster of those we could call on when the occasion arises. For more specifics about the practice of shmira, or to add your name to the roster, contact Shoshana Halle at 510-465-8707; And watch for an upcoming teaching about Jewish mourning practices.

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