Judaism in Kerala

Birth and Rituals

The birth of a baby in a Jewish family is attended with great rejoicing and prayerfulness. Blessings are sought for the mother and the baby at the synagogue and an apt Hebrew name, as well as a civic name, is selected.  If it is a baby boy, he is given a name after the Brit Milah, or the ceremony of circumcision is conducted on the eighth day of his birth. This is never postponed even when the eighth day is a Jewish Day of Rest (Sabbath) or the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)

Traditionally, the baby is taken to the Jewish place of worship, the synagogue, for circumcision where two chairs are placed in front of the Mohel, a pious man trained in the holy art of circumcision. The baby’s godmother (usually his grandmother or an aunt) brings him into the sanctuary, and the godfather (usually the grandfather or an uncle) holds him during the rite while remaining seated in one of the chairs.  The second chair is kept empty. It is reserved for Prophet Elijah who, the Jews believe, maintains their contact with the Almighty. 

If the baby is a firstborn son born to a Jewish mother through natural means, a ceremony called the Pidyon Haben (the redemption of the firstborn son) is conducted on the thirtieth day of his birth. Here, the father of the child takes him to a Kohen (a descendant of the hereditary family of priests) and “redeems” him from the obligation to become a priest by making a payment of five silver shekels (coins of ancient Israel) in the presence of a Minyan (a group of ten Jewish men whose presence is mandatory for performing prayers and certain rituals). 

As there were no Kohens in their community in Kerala, most of the Malabari Jews (Jews of mixed race with both European and native blood, as opposed to Paradesi Jews who claimed to be of “pure” European or Middle-Eastern descent), either did not observe this rite or waited for years until a Kohen came here from another country. Such was the deep divide between the two Jewish communities of Kerala.