Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yaakov ben Baruch Albalia was one of the outstanding Talmudic scholars and leaders of Spanish Jewry in the time of its “Golden Era.” He was born in Cordova, the capital of Andalusia, in the year 4795 (1035). The family into which he was born, known as "Baruch," or by its Spanish name "Albalia," was one of the oldest aristocratic Jewish families of Spain. The first ancestor of the family when it settled in Spain was Baruch, one of the princes of Judea who was taken captive by Titus, the Roman general (and later emperor) who destroyed Jerusalem. Baruch was an expert silk weaver, and Titus sent him, together with several other prominent exiles from Judea to Spain, which was also under Roman rule at that time. Baruch was to develop the silk industry there and also act as Roman governor of the province of Murida. Later the family moved to Cordova, where Yitzchak was born nearly 1000 years after his first ancestor settled in Spain.
Young Yitzchak excelled himself in his studies at an early age. He was an avid student of the Talmud, and, as was customary at that time among the aristocratic Jewish families, he also became proficient in philosophy and the sciences, especially mathematics and astronomy. His diligence and extraordinary mental capacities came to the attention of Rabbi Samuel ibn Nagdela, the great Talmudic scholar and grand Vizier of King Badis of Granada, and the "Nagid" ("prince") of Spanish Jewry. Rabbi Samuel Hanagid showered many gifts upon the young scholar. He also supplied him with books and manuscripts from his extensive library, and encouraged him in his studies.
After Rabbi Samuel's death, his son Rabbi Joseph ibn Nagdela succeeded to the high positions held by his father, both at the royal court and as Nagid of the Jews. Rabbi Joseph maintained a great friendship towards Rabbi Yitzchak. They were about the same age, and became greatly attached to each other, and Rabbi Joseph continued to support his friend with a generous hand. Thanks to this patronage, Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia was able to devote all his time to his studies with undivided attention.
When Rabbi Yitzchak was about 30 years old, he began to write his great work Kupatb Harochlim ("The Peddler's Basket") - a commentary on the most difficult passages of the Talmud. Apparently he never completed it, however, and it eventually was lost altogether.
He also wrote a work on the Jewish calendar, being an expert mathematician and astronomer. In it he dared to differ in some respects from the views of Rav Saadia Gaon and other authorities on the Jewish calendar, although he spoke of them with the highest admiration. Rabbi Yitzchak dedicated this work to his friend and patron Rabbi Joseph ibn Nagdela. Unfortunately, this work too was lost
Like many other inspired Torah scholars and leaders of those days, Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia composed piyyutim (sacred poetry) which gained recognition and won the praise of such an eminent Hebrew poet as Alharizi.
Soon tragedy struck at Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia. It happened in the year 1066, when Albalia was in Granada on one of his frequent visits there. On that occasion, it was a Sabbath (in the month of Teveth, December), the Jewish quarter in Granada was attacked by a bloodthirsty mob that nearly wiped out the flourishing Jewish community. Rabbi Joseph ibn Nagdela was also murdered on that fateful day. Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia miraculously escaped a similar fate, together with a few other Jews, among them the Nagid’s wife and son Azariah.
Greatly shaken, Rabbi Yitzchak returned to Cordova, where he immersed himself again in his studies. His fame as a scholar and astronomer reached new heights. Soon he became friendly with the king's son, who later ascended the throne in the city of Seville (in 1069) as Caliph Al-Motamid. The Caliph invited his Jewish friend to the palace and appointed him as his personal astronomer and adviser. At the same time he appointed Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia as "Nassi" ("Prince") and the recognized leader of the Jewish community in his kingdom.
Albalia did his utmost to encourage Torah learning among his brethren. He spent a fortune to buy books and manuscripts, particularly those which once belonged to his friend and patron Rabbi Samuel Hanagid, which was sacked during the attack on the house of his son Rabbi Joseph. Since that time, many of those valuable books and manuscripts had been scattered, and fell into different hands. Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia spared neither effort nor money to recover them. His collection of books and manuscripts became one of the largest. Seville generally became a great center of Torah learning under his patronage. He himself was elected as chief rabbi of Seville, and he attracted many students who came to study under his guidance. He became famous far beyond Seville and Spain. .
Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia was one of five outstanding Talmudic scholars who bore the name "Yitzchak" and who lived at the same time. The others were: Rabbi Yitzchak ibn Gayyat, one of the luminaries of Spanish Jewry at that time; Rabbi Yitzchak ben Moshe, the successor to Rav Hai Gaon; Rabbi Yitzchak ben Reuven Al-Barceloni, a grandfather of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachum); and Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (the RIF), the most famous of them all. With the latter, Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia carried on a scholarly controversy, and some harsh words passed between them in the heat of argument.
In 1091, Caliph Al-Motamid was defeated by his rival and, as a result, Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia lost his position at the court. He left Seville and settled in Granada, where the Jewish community had by then begun to flourish again. Here he died three years later, before reaching the age of sixty.
At his deathbed, his young son Baruch, a lad of seventeen years, wept saying, "With whom will you leave me now?" The dying father told him to go to Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi. "Tell him in my name," Rabbi Yitzchak said, "that I have forgiven him for all those harsh words which he had spoken and written about me, and that I beg him also to forgive me. Tell him also that I ask him to take care of my only son, and be a father and teacher to him."
After his father's death, young Baruch went to Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi and conveyed to him his dying father's wishes. The RIF was moved to tears and promised young Baruch to treat him as though he were his own son. Indeed, he fulfilled his promise. Under Rabbi Alfasi's tutelage and care Rabbi Baruch became one of the outstanding scholars of his time. The great Rabbi Yehuda Halevi dedicated one of his poems to young Rabbi Baruch, whom he described as truly "'blessed" (Baruch).
Rabbi Yitzchak Albalia was the maternal grandfather of Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud the First, and it is thanks to the writings of the famed grandson that we know about the life and work of his illustrious ancestor.