SYNODS , conventions of rabbis, with or without the participation of laymen, held to deliberate and adopt *takkanot (regulations) and decide on ways and methods of exerting social and moral leadership. The synods originated from, and were activated by, the ideal of reference to a central halakhic authority and a unifying national leadership. The need was felt in the context of the Jewish dispersion and the breakup of the established central institutions, coupled with the diminishing influence of the geonim and exilarchs which had become manifestly evident by the second half of the 11th century.
The communities of northern France were the first to inaugurate a long series of synods, which resorted to the sanction of the ḥerem ("ban"). The dates on which these synods were held and the identity of their initiators cannot be clearly established because of the tendency to ascribe synodal activity to a single scholar; a whole series of synodal resolutions of a later period were attributed to *Gershom b. Judah and were known as the "Ḥerem of R. Gershom." Synods were often held at fairs, like those of Champagne. Like the later fairs in Poland and Lithuania, they were a convenient place to hold conventions.
The first full-fledged Ashkenazi synod should probably be dated around 1150. It was convened at *Troyes by Jacob b. Meir (*Tam) and his brother *Samuel b. Meir (Rashbam). Among questions of Jewish law discussed were those relating to *informers and litigation by Jews in non-Jewish courts. The phrasing of the takkanot shows that by "informers" the rabbis also understood ideological opponents who were ready to turn for support to Christian rulers. Another synod took place also at Troyes after 1160. Representatives attended from the communities of the Kingdom of France, and from Normandy and Poitiers. The subject discussed was the dowry of a wife who died within the first year of marriage. The French synods were followed by meetings in the three Rhine cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz (Heb. abbr. שׁו״ם *"Shum"). In 1196 David b. Kalonymus presided over a synod at one of these cities. It dealt with ḥaliẓah and other subjects. Some time later an assembly of rabbis adopted resolutions on 20 major legal, moral, and communal matters. In 1220 a gathering at Mainz reaffirmed some of the decisions of the previous synod and added a number of new items. Three years later another meeting at Speyer reenacted the regulations of the two previous conventions. No further synods are known to have taken place until one met at Mainz (c. 1250). Some time later *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg, after consulting Jedidiah of Speyer by letter, called a meeting of community representatives at Nuremberg to regulate the problem of wives who deserted their husbands, the so-called "intractable wife" (moredet).
In the 14th century the German *Ḥayyim b. Isaac "Or Zaru'a," convened an assembly to rule on the question of offering legal advice to a litigant. In July 1381, at a council in Mainz attended by the local rabbi Moses b. Jekuthiel and other prominent scholars, ḥaliẓah was the main topic discussed. Illustrative of the dangers under which synods then convened is the synod of 1386 held in Weissefels, Saxony, consisting of both rabbis and laymen who were to deliberate on religious matters. The travelers had obtained safe-conduct passes from the Saxon princes. Nevertheless a party of German robber-nobles plundered them of their possessions, and held them until a substantial ransom was paid. A complaint to the princes who had issued the safe-conduct brought no redress since all agreed that "the enemies of Christ" deserved no better treatment. Around 1400 a meeting at Erfurt forbade a Kohen to pass the city and cemetery at funerals until the dead had been carried through those gates. In 1530 an assembly at Augsburg, convened by *Josel of Rosheim, passed a resolution against usury, besides deliberating many other pressing issues. Twelve years later a synod at Worms, attended by delegates from Frankfurt, Landau, and other towns, renewed the old prohibition on rabbinical bans issued against nonresidents. Not until the synod in Frankfurt in 1603 were questions of Jewish law again discussed. Many significant takkanot were enacted there. An investigation by the government of the contents of these ordinances caused serious anxiety among the Jews who had been accused of high treason.
In southern Europe probably the earliest recorded synod took place in 1238 on the island of Crete (Candia). A rabbi Baruch b. Isaac from northern Europe, who visited the Jewish community there on his way to the Holy Land, was amazed at the laxity of religious and moral behavior among the local Jews; he was instrumental in having some 15 prominent Jews of the island adopt a series of ten ordinances to strengthen piety and adapt European takkanot to local needs. In 1289 *Hillel b. Samuel of Verona, a philosopher, attempted a very ambitious but abortive Jewish synod to bolster the Maimonidean position on religious issues (see Maimonidean *Controversy). A committee elected two years earlier at a convention in Bologna of delegates from the Papal States, Tuscany, Padua, and Ferrara, adopted in 1418 a number of sumptuary regulations. Several other meetings dealt with general communal problems. The synod at Ferrara in 1554 adopted many significant resolutions, among them a regulation on Hebrew book printing, all of which remained in force until the 18th century.
The French *Sanhedrin of 1807, though it concerned itself with questions of faith, was convened by the secular powers, not by the Jews themselves, and could not therefore exercise any considerable influence on the convictions of the Jewish people. Synods called in the 19th century were animated by the spirit of religious *Reform, such as the Reform rabbinical *conferences in Germany first held in Wiesbaden in 1837. They laid the foundations of liberal thinking on Jewish beliefs and practices.
These synods failed in their purpose of acting as central religious authorities. Each of the Reform groups followed its own course; the Orthodox were hostile to the whole procedure.
Finkelstein, Middle Ages, index; J. Parkes, Jew in the Medieval Community (1938), 246–7; D. Philipson, Reform Movement in Judaism (1907), index; N. Bentwich, Solomon Schechter (1938), index; Baron, Community, 3 (1942), index s.v.Councils; Graetz, Hist, 6 (1967), index s.v.Rabbinical Synods; J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe (1968), index; H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), Toledot Am Yisrael, 3 vols. (1969–70), index.