Rabbinic Synods

Rabbinic conventions can--following specific guidelines--amend Jewish law.

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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.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.