Majer Bałaban was born in a family of Jewish printers, active in Zhovkva and in Lviv. He studiedat the University of Lviv, tutored by Ludwik M.E. Finkel (1858–1930) and Szymon Askenazy. He defended his doctorate in 1904.
During World War I, he was a military rabbi in Lublin. For many years, he had been working in colleges (in Częstochowa, Warsaw and elsewhere). He was also the rector of the Rabbinical Seminary „Tachkemoni” in Warsaw (1920–1930). In 1928 he received his habilitation at the University of Warsaw. He was the co-founder of, and since 1928 also professor at the Institute of Judaistic Sciences in Warsaw (located in the same building as the Jewish Historical Instutute today). He was a lecturer at the Free Polish University (since 1928) and the University of Warsaw (since 1935), co-founder and board member of the Hebrew University Friends Association.
In 1940, Bałaban was resettled to the Warsaw Ghetto, where he directed the Archive Department of the Judenrat. At the order of the German authorities, he participated in requisition of Jewish books. Throughout the war, Majer Bałaban continued his academic work and kept a memoir reaching back to his early childhood (mentioned by E. Ringelblum in the Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto) which didn’t survive until today.
He shaped many students and even became a point of reference for young academics who rebelled against his methodology. Aside from that, he was also a contributor to the Jewish (such as „Wschód” weekly) and Polish-Jewish press; he published the „Nowe Życie” magazine (1924).
Due to his oeuvre spanning several hundred works, Majer Balaban is considered the founder of contemporary Jewish historiography in Poland. His most valuable works were dedicated to 17th-19th century, in which the author emphasised the issues of internal organization and life in the Jewish community and the problems of broadly understood culture. His most important works are: Żydzi lwowscy na przełomie XVI i XVII w. (Jews of Lviv at the turn of 16th and 17th century, 1906); Dzieje Żydów w Galicji i Rzeczypospolitej Krakowskiej 1772–1868 (The history of Jews in Galicia and the Republic of Krakow 1772–1868, 1916); Die Judenstadt von Lublin (1919); Żydowskie miasto w Lublinie (The Jewish city in Lublin, 1919); Z historii Żydów w Polsce (Excerpts from the history of Jews in Poland, 1920); Historia Żydów w Krakowie i na Kazimierzu 1304–1868 (History of Jews in Kraków and Kazimierz, 1304–1868, vol. 1–2, 1931–1936) and the popular Historia i literatura żydowska ze szczególnym uwzględnieniem historii Żydów w Polsce (Jewish history and literature, with a special focus on the history of Jews in Poland, vol. 1–3, 1920–1925).
He paid a lot of attention to bibliographic works, among which the most important one is the unfinished Bibliografia historii Żydów w Polsce i krajach ościennych za lata 1900–1930 (Bibliography of the history of Jews in Poland and neighbouring countries, part. 1, 1939; reprint 1978).
He died in the Warsaw Ghetto in unexplained conditions. There were rumors about suicide or heart attack. His precise date of death remains unknown; it is certain that it happened in late 1942 or early 1943. He was buried at the Jewish cemetery at Okopowa street.
An academic contest for the best masters’ and doctoral theses dedicated to the subject of Jews and Israel, organised by the Jewish Historical Institute since 2009, has been named after Majer Bałaban.