Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Rabbinical synods were assemblies or conferences of Rabbinic leaders at which rulings were given governing the social life of Jews under their jurisdiction. In the Middle Ages the synod was known as the asifah (‘assembly’).
The Rabbinical synods differed in two respects from the synods of the Church. First, the Christian synods were convened largely for the purpose of defining complicated issues of dogma, whereas the Rabbinical synods were chiefly concerned with practical legislation.
Secondly, the Christian synods enjoyed an international authority, whereas the Rabbinical synods in the Middle Ages were confined to particular communities or districts. Once the period of the Geonim had come to an end there was no central authority for Jews.
What are Takkanot?
The main activity of the Rabbinical synods was to establish takkanot (‘enactments’). A takkanah (‘putting right’) consists of new legislation to cover situations for which the standard laws are inadequate or on which they are silent. The principle behind the takkanah is that locally accepted authorities have power, granted to them by the community itself, just as members of Parliament act on behalf of the country.
A synod had the power to issue new financial and social regulations, at first binding only on those under the particular Rabbinic jurisdiction but often finding their way into the Codes of law, when they thus became binding on Jews outside the original communities in which the takkanot were promulgated.
For instance, the famous ban (herem) on polygamy, attributed to the Synod of
Rabbenu Gershom of Mayence, became binding eventually not only on Jews living in Germany but on all Ashkenazi Jews. This extension of the ban did not apply however, to Sephardi Jews, who, nevertheless, introduced certain restrictions of their own against a man taking more than one wife, for instance by encouraging the drawing up of a ketubah (marriage settlement) in which it was stated that the consent of the first wife is required before her husband can take another wife.
Such Sephardi regulations were also limited in that they applied only to the particular community in which they were promulgated. Similarly, the ban against the study of science and philosophy by youths under the age of 20, promulgated by the Synod of Barcelona on 26 July 1305, under the leadership of Solomon Ibn Adret, was binding only on the Jews of Barcelona, although attempts were made to extend the ban to other communities.
The idea behind it all is that the synod enjoyed its powers by the consensus of the community, so that any legislation that emerged was binding by the community’s acceptance, not in any way because of the dictate of the Rabbis themselves.
No synod had the right to introduce legislation to change religious law, except through the normal halakhic channels.
The Takkanot of Usha
A number of takkanot are attributed in the Talmud to the synod of Usha, a town in Lower Galilee in the middle of the second century CE. This synod had the aim of re-establishing the Sanhedrin after its exile from Jerusalem when the Temple was destroyed.
Among the takkanot of Usha are: that a man must support his young children and that a man must not give away to the poor more than a fifth of his capital, resolutions which are both understandable against the background of the time, when poverty was rife as a result of the severe decline of the economy that followed the wars against Rome.
Medieval Synods & Councils
Around the year 1150 the famous French teachers, Rabbenu Tam and his brother the Rashbam, convened a synod to discuss the conditions of Jewish life following the Crusades. In Germany soon afterwards synods were convened by the three communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mayence. The regulations issued at these synods are known in the literature of Jewish law as the takkanot of Shum (after the initial letters in Hebrew of the three towns).
Synods were often convened at the great fairs to which the merchants would bring their Rabbis to adjudicate in disputes between them and where the Rabbis of important communities had the opportunity to meet.
The Council of the Four Lands (Major Poland, Minor Poland, Red Russia, and Lithuania) met regularly from the middle of the sixteenth century, their enactments being known as the takkanot of vaad arba aratzot (Council of Four Lands).
The Jewish World Today
In modern times the various Rabbinical conferences took the place of the synods. Nowadays, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Rabbis have their usually annual conferences to discuss questions of general and Jewish concern in the light of the particular movement.
These conferences are much wider in scope than the medieval synods and while halakhic issues are discussed, their thrust is largely in the direction of social justice, theology, and the wider teachings of Judaism.
To what degree the proposals put forward and accepted at these conferences are binding on the members of the organization depends on the constitution of the organization.
Pronounced: AHSH-ken-AH-zee, Origin: Hebrew, Jews of Central and Eastern European origin.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.