07 Oct Dirty Laundry on Chol Ha-Moed
Does the prohibition against washing dirty clothes on Chol Ha-Mo’ed, the intermediate days of the holiday, still apply today when doing laundry is relatively quick and easy?1 In theory, washing laundry always should be allowed on Chol Ha-Mo’ed. Generally speaking, simple work needed for the day is allowed. If you run out of clean clothes, you need to do laundry so you can wear clean clothes on the holiday.
However, the Sages enacted a special prohibition forbidding the washing of laundry on Chol Ha-Mo’ed to ensure that we wash our clothes before the holiday (Mo’ed Katan 14a). Built into this rabbinic prohibition are specific exceptions, including someone with only one garment. Even if he washes it before the holiday, he will have to wash it again in Chol Ha-Mo’ed.
Times have changed since the Talmud. In olden times, washing laundry took hours. You had to take the clothes to a water source (river or stream), hand wash every item, hang then to dry and then press them. It was common to wear clothes for many days before placing them aside for laundry. Today, plumbing and technology have turned laundry into a relatively quick experience. The washing machine and dryer do all the work. We just have to carry and fold, and perhaps iron shirts if necessary. Most people today wear clothes once and then place them aside for laundry, particularly undergarments. Do we still have to follow this ancient enactment? If so, we need enough undergarments to last every day of the holiday without washing.
The simple answer is yes; the enactment remains in place because we cannot remove it. However, to some degree, the reason for the enactment still applies despite the advances in technology. With all the preparations for Yom Tov, it would be easy to delay work like laundry. But that would leave us entering Yom Tov without newly laundered clothing (see Rav Yekusiel Farkas, Chol Ha-Mo’ed Ke-Hilchaso 5:3 n. 8). We must prepare for the entire holiday by washing our clothes rather than waiting until Chol Ha-Mo’ed.
However, given the changed behavior patterns regarding clean clothes, perhaps another leniency applies. On the one hand, we change our clothes every day, certainly our undergarments. Technology makes laundry much quicker and easier. On the other, clothing is less expensive. If for whatever reason, a person runs out of clean undergarments on Chol Ha-Mo’ed, he usually can buy plenty of new undergarments for less than $20. Most people will find that a minor expense. For people who can easily afford new undergarments but run out of clean undergarments on Chol Ha-Mo’ed, can they do a quick laundry or should they pop into a store (or shop online with overnight delivery)?
Among the exceptions to the prohibition of laundry on Chol Ha-Mo’ed, the Mishnah (Mo’ed Katan 14a, 18a) includes a person’s only outergarment and hand towels, which get dirty very quickly and even in ancient times could not be reused on multiple days. The Chayei Adam (110:2) extends this to handkerchiefs used for blowing your nose, which also get dirty quickly. Do undergarments today have the same status as hand towels and handkerchiefs?
Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yalkut Yosef, Yom Tov, p. 198, cited in R. David Brofsky, Hilchot Mo’adim, p. 658 n. 25) rules that because undergarments are changed every day, you may wash them on Chol Ha-Mo’ed if you run out of clean undergarments. Similarly, Rav Asher Bush (Sho’el Bi-Shlomo, no. 31) rules that if you prepare for Yom Tov properly by doing laundry but run out of clean undergarments, you may wash dirty undergarments (but nothing else) on Chol Ha-Mo’ed.
However, Rav Dovid Zucker and Rav Moshe Francis, the authors of Chol Hamoed: A Comprehensive Review of the Laws of the Intermediate Days of the Festivals, sent a number of questions to various authorities. Among the responses from Rav Moshe Stern is a ruling on this subject (p. 184, no. 22). Rav Stern writes that he does not want to permit it outright because clothes are inexpensive in this country. But if there is a great need, people should be advised to ask their rabbi who can permit based on the above reasons. Rav Zucker and Rav Francis summarize this ruling (p. 47): “If the supply of a particular item does become depleted on Chol HaMoed, usually the only recourse is to purchase whatever is needed for the festival. (If purchasing is difficult or unduly expensive, competent Rabbinic opinion should be sought.)”
Interestingly, Rav Yekusiel Farkas, in his Chol Ha-Mo’ed Ke-Hilchaso (5:11 #3) rules that someone who runs out of clean socks can wash them on Chol Ha-Mo’ed. As a source for this leniency, he quotes Rav Moshe Stern’s response to the authors of the book, Chol Hamoed. Rav Stern was actually less lenient, which is why the authors advised purchasing new clothes over washing dirty clothes.
Rav Farkas also quotes Rav Yehoshua Neuwirth, who permits washing socks Chol Ha-Mo’ed if you run out of clean socks (Shemiras Shabbos Ke-Hilchasah 66:66). However, Rav Neuwirth (n. 260) points out that we know how long the holiday lasts and roughly how much clothing we will need. If you fail to prepare in advance by cleaning them before the holiday, you may not wash them on Chol Ha-Mo’ed. That is precisely how the original enactment was set up, to ensure we prepare for the holiday in advance.