The kohen is the only one who is able to render decisions regarding the purity or impurity of negaim, physical afflictions. Indeed, Chazal teach us that in the event that the kohen is not versed in the laws of negaim — or can not distinguish between the various types of plagues — a Torah scholar should be summoned. After the scholar considers the situation, he is obligated to relate his decision to the kohen, who, in turn, pronounces the individual tameh or tahor. The kohen must be the one to articulate the judgment. Describing this uneducated kohen, Chazal use the word shoteh, fool, as the adjective to characterize his lack of proficiency in negaim. This term seems harsh and inconsistent with Chazal’s prevalent term of am ha’aretz, simple or unschooled, which is generally used in reference to describe such an individual. Why does the kohen “merit” such a derogatory portrayal?
Horav Zalmen Sorotzkin, z.l., offers a profound but practical insight into the matter. Torah proficiency demands unrelenting effort. It requires commitment and dedication towards attaining the goal of Torah scholarship. The typical Jew has one hurdle to overcome in order to achieve this goal — parnassah, livelihood. The most common excuse for “not finding the time” to study Torah assiduously is, “I have to make a living.” Regrettably, this excuse leads to a host of other rationalizations for “justifying” one’s lack of commitment to Torah study. This explanation, however, only “excuses” the Yisrael, who must earn his living through his own endeavor. The kohen, on the other hand, is supported through the terumah and twenty-four special gifts that he receives from the people. How can he rationalize being illiterate? Why did he squander his time when he could have been studying Torah? Such a person who wastes his precious time is not simply illiterate, he is a fool!