Question: May one place clothing in the washing machine on Erev Shabbat if the machine will continue to operate on Shabbat itself?
Answer: When we discussed the issue of turning on sprinklers before Shabbat, we had explained that, in general, it is permissible to begin a work forbidden on Shabbat before the onset of Shabbat in order for that work to continue on Shabbat itself. It is therefore permissible for one to turn on sprinklers to water one’s lawn or garden before Shabbat, even if the sprinklers will continue watering the lawn on Shabbat itself, since no forbidden work is actually being performed on Shabbat.
Let us now discuss the issue at hand which is whether or not one may turn on a washing machine before Shabbat when one knows for certain that the cycle will continue during the Shabbat itself. Based on the above, there should be room for leniency in this regard since no actual forbidden work is being performed on Shabbat.
Nevertheless, there are those who rule stringently with regards to a washing machine since this depends on a related disagreement among the Poskim, as follows:
The Baraita (Shabbat 18a) states: “One may not place wheat into a water mill so that the wheat may be milled on Shabbat.” This means that one may not place wheat into a mill powered by a water-propelled wheel before Shabbat; although no actual forbidden work is being performed on Shabbat, nevertheless, since the mill makes a great deal of noise on Shabbat, this constitutes a disrespect for Shabbat. The Sages of the Talmud disagree whether the Halacha follows this Baraita. Some say that this Baraita is unanimous and it is therefore forbidden to begin a work on Erev Shabbat when a noise will be produced on Shabbat itself. Others, however, explain that this Baraita is contingent on a different dispute between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel and according to Bet Hillel, there is no concern for such noise-making on Shabbat and one may place wheat into a mill before Shabbat in order for it to be milled on Shabbat.
Halachically speaking, Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 252) rules that one may place wheat into a water-mill slightly before the onset of Shabbat and we are not concerned that the noise will arouse the suspicion of others who may think this individual’s mill is operational on Shabbat. The Rama (chief halachic authority for Ashkenazi Jews) writes, “There are those who prohibit regarding a mill as well as anything that produces noise. This is the preferable custom. However, in a situation of financial loss, there is room for leniency.”
Thus, according to Sephardic Jews who have accepted upon themselves the rulings of Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch, there is no concern for noise production on Shabbat. Even according to Ashkenazi tradition, in a situation of great financial loss or great need, such as soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces who return home for Shabbat on Friday afternoon and must return to their bases immediately on Motza’ei Shabbat, one need not be concerned with noise-production. It is therefore halachically permissible to turn on a washing machine on Friday afternoon which will run through Shabbat, especially when there is a pressing need to do so. Even according to the Ashkenazim, there is room for leniency in this regard when there is no other time to do so. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l rules likewise in several of his works.
Nonetheless, Maran zt”l has told us orally that he only intended his lenient ruling for cases of great need, such as with regards to soldiers in the IDF and the like; however, if there is no specific need for one to do so, one should not act leniently, even according to the Sephardic custom, for several reasons.
Summary: According to the Sephardic custom, there is room for leniency to turn on a washing machine before Shabbat even when the cycle will continue on Shabbat, when there is a need to do so. Even according to the Ashkenazi custom, when there are time limitations, such as soldiers in the IDF who return home only for Shabbat and return to their bases immediately thereafter and they have no other opportunity to do their laundry, there is room for them to turn on the washing machine before the onset of Shabbat and there is no concern of any prohibition here.