Rabbi David Walk
The basic meaning of shomer is guard, both as a noun and a verb. That works well for city gates, army bases or malls, but has to be modified when describing mitzvoth. Then I think the most popular English translation is keeps, like one keeps the mitzvoth. But you could say performs and some say safeguards. However, I'd like to propose that the best translation is to observe the mitzvoth, and it's going to take the rest of this article to explain why.
The phrase which must be understood appears both in last week's parsha and again twice in this week's Torah reading. Last week it says: For if you keep (shamur tishmarun) all these commandments which I command you to do (la'asot) them (Deuteronomy 11:22). This week we have: And you shall keep (U'shmartem) to perform (la'asot) all the statutes and ordinances (11:32), and: These are the statutes and ordinances that you shall keep (tishmarun) to perform (la'asot) (12:1). Clearly, shmira isn't doing or performing the mitzvah, it's a stage before that, because each time after the shmira comes the word for doing (la'asot). So, what does shmira mean? Rashi helps: This (repetition of shmira) is a multiple admonishment to us to be careful with one's learning, lest it be forgotten (on 11:22). Shmira is a step between learning about the mitzvoth and actually doing them. It's the opposite of forgetting. Wait a minute. Isn't remembering (zachor) the opposite of forgetting? Perhaps that's why the fourth commandment of the Ten Biggies starts once with remember (zachur) the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8) and the second time with shamur the Sabbath (Deuteronomy (5:12). The two words represent two nuances of the same concept. But what is that concept?
Help comes from a phrase traditional Jews recite every morning in the paragraph before Shema. Instill in our hearts the desire to understand and discern, to listen, learn and teach, to observe (lishmur), perform and fulfill all the teachings of Your Torah in love (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translation). The first five expressions describe the process of gathering the information and knowledge necessary for mitzvah implementation. The last two portray the actual performance. One is just doing it (la'asot); the other is doing right with every requirement satisfied (l'kayeim). That leaves to observe (lishmur). I believe that this term expresses that critical moment when the individual resolves to turn the knowledge of a mitzvah into the act, when the theoretical becomes real. The Torah precept blossoms into actuality in the mind, heart and soul of the practitioner before it's externally performed. And that's what God really desires of us. That's why our parsha begins with: Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse (11:26), and at the end of this whole section of mitzvoth the Torah concludes: And you will choose (30:19). The blessing doesn't wait for the performance; it arrives with the choice, the resolve, the commitment.
This idea helps to explain a fascinating statement in the Talmud: God considers a good intention as the deed itself, but does not consider an evil thought as performance of the act (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah, chapter 1, halacha 1). This makes sense now, because, even though we want the mitzvoth performed and performed accurately, the critical instant is when one decides to do the mitzvah. That moment, which is like a light bulb flashing on, is called shmira, and it's akin to remembering. That flash of recognition on the face of the actor is the most dramatic second in so many movies about courage and valor, from George Bailey to Rocky Balboa to Mrs. Miniver, way before they actually do the act of heroism. And we should do it, too, in our determination to perform mitzvoth, to fulfill God's will. I know that we don't always carry through, but that instant of purpose makes us better people.
So, when we describe someone as Shomer Shabbat or Shomer Kahrut, we should mean that we know they yearn to keep the Jewish law and custom, even if they haven't yet gotten to the actual or total performance. They have already put the mitzvah into a special place in their hearts. They aren't yet doing the mitzvah fully but they are observing the value of the precept, and they deserve our recognition. Along with our respect that these individuals have reached this stage of religious development should also come the blessing that they will still reach the levels of performance and fulfillment.
You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParshaemail@example.com