When a Jew passes away, it is a mitzvah for another Jew to watch over the body from the time of death until burial. This duty is known as being a shomer, a “guard” or “watcher.” This mitzvah is so important that if a shomer cannot find a replacement, he or she should not pause even for prayer or reciting the Shema.1

Here’s why it’s done:

Not Abandoned

Firstly, having a shomer demonstrates that the departed is not abandoned. Even though the soul has departed, the body is honored, and cared for with dignity and respect.2

Guarding the Void

Secondly, when the soul departs, it leaves behind a vacuum.

As an empty jar can attract unwanted pests, a body that has lost its holy soul becomes susceptible to negative spiritual forces until properly buried. Having a shomer present, particularly one who recites prayers and psalms, safeguards the body until it can be laid to rest.3

Unwanted Animals

A practical reason for the shomer is to prevent critters or rodents from defiling the body. This was especially important in times when people lived in closer proximity to nature and refrigeration was not possible.4

Brief Guidelines For the Shomer

Recitation of Prayers: A shomer should spend the time reciting prayers and psalms, as it brings great merit to the departed soul during its journey to the next world.5

Minimum of Two Watchers: Ideally, there should be at least two shomerim present, ensuring that if one needs to step out, there is always someone watching over the body.6

Regardless of Physical Protection: The presence of a shomer is required regardless of whether the body is in a physically protected place, such as a secure morgue, as the purpose of a shomer extends beyond physical protection to honor the deceased.7

Shabbat and Holidays: The responsibility of being a shomer applies even on Shabbat and holidays.8

Shomer for Multiple Bodies: A person may be a shomer for multiple bodies at the same time.9

Prayers and Shema: A shomer is not permitted to recite Shema or prayers (other than those said out of respect for the body, such as psalms) within approximately 6 feet (4 cubits) of the body.10 (According to many, indoors, the prohibitions extends to the entire room11 ). If there are two shomers, they should take turns stepping away to recite the Shema or prayers when necessary.12

Eating and Drinking: Ideally, eating and drinking should not be done near the body. In case of great need, the shomer can turn away from the body briefly to have a small snack or drink.13

Respectful Environment: Friendly greetings and frivolous conversations should be avoided in the vicinity of the deceased, maintaining a solemn and respectful atmosphere.14

May we merit the time when we will be reunited with our loved ones through the coming of Moshiach and the Resurrection of the Dead.