Jewish law requires that a body never be left alone until it is buried. Traditionally, an Orthodox man keeps vigil -- known as sitting shmira -- and men watch over men's bodies, women over women's bodies. The vigiler, known as a shomer, will sometimes sing the Psalms during the 24-hour vigil.
The vigils were started almost immediately by an Orthodox synagogue, Ohab Zedek, with members taking turns keeping vigil in a tent outside the New York Medical Examiner's office. But with the overwhelming death count from the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers, some rules have been bent, according to The New York Times.
Because devout Jews cannot drive or use the subway on the Sabbath, members of the synagogue could not reach the site from sundown Friday through sundown on Saturday. They recruited a group of female college students at nearby Stern College for Women, a division of Yeshiva university. The women take shifts sitting throughout the night, singing or muttering the Psalms. Yeshiva officials also provide security for women walking to and from the morgue late at night.
Norman Lamm, the school's president, said the need to fulfill the commandment superseded the gender requirements. He also said it is just as important to provide vigil for non-Jewish bodies. "The idea that you can have companionship even in death is a very consoling thought, whether you are Jewish or not," he told The Times.
One of the students, Judith Kaplan, recently extended her four-hour overnight shift to five hours so she could sing all 150 Psalms. She finished at 5 a.m. She said keeping vigil was her way of helping in a devastating tragedy. "This is something I can do," she said. "And it's surreal. You absolutely feel the souls there, and you feel them feeling better."