Shmuel and Avleit (a gentile astrologer) were sitting together as some men were going to a swamp to cut reeds.
Avleit said: “This man will go but he will not come back; a snake will bite him and he will die.”
Shmuel responded: “If he is a Jew, he will go and come back.”
While they were sitting there, the man went and came back. Avleit stood up and threw off the man’s pack of reeds, finding there a snake that had been cut into two pieces.
Shmuel said to the man: “What have you done that might have made you worthy of escaping death?”
The man replied: “Every day we all throw our bread together in one basket and eat it. Today I realised there was one of us who did not have any bread to contribute, and he was growing embarrassed. So I told them all that I would get up and collect the bread. When I reached that person I pretended to take something from him and made up the difference with my own bread so that he should not be embarrassed.”
Shmuel said to him: “You have done a Mitzvah, an act of true charity.”
Shmuel went out and expounded the verse in Mishlei 10:2: “Charity saves from death” – and not just from an unusual death but even from death itself.
Another incident, involving Rabbi Akiva, also teaches us that the celestial signs hold no sway over Israel. Rabbi Akiva was extremely worried when the astrologers told him that his daughter would be bitten by a snake and die on the day she would enter her bridal chamber. On that day, however, she took her brooch and stuck it in the wall, unknowingly lodging its needle in the eye of the snake. The next morning, when she took the brooch out of the wall the dead snake was stuck to the brooch.
Her father said to her: “What have you done that might have made you worthy of escaping death?”
She replied: “In the afternoon a poor man came and called out at the doorway but everyone was busy at the wedding banquet and nobody heard him. I stood up and took my portion of food and gave it to him.”
Rabbi Akiva said to her: “You have done a Mitzvah, an act of true charity.” … (Gemara Shabbat 156b)
Maharsha comments on the significance of both episodes involving a snake and food. The snake represents the snake in the garden of Eden who brought death into the world. The food corresponds to the forbidden food that Adam and Eve consumed. These Mitzvot of donating food as charity served to counter the negative influence introduced to the world by the snake. Perhaps the symbolism is deeper in light of the Talmudic opinion (Gemara Berachot 40a) that Adam and Eve’s forbidden food was wheat, the main ingredient of bread.