In 1905, Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka, a typical shtetl in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia, compares the lives of the Jews of Anatevka to a fiddler on the roof (who appears throughout the film in this metaphorical role), using tradition to “scratch out a pleasant, simple tune” without breaking their necks.
In town, Tevye meets Perchik, a radical Marxist from Kiev, who admonishes those for talking but doing nothing about news of the tsar banishing Jews from their villages. Tevye invites Perchik to stay with his family, offering him room and board in exchange for him tutoring his daughters.
Tevye arranges for his oldest daughter, Tzeitel, to marry Lazar Wolf, a wealthy widowed butcher much older than her. Tzeitel loves her childhood sweetheart, the tailor Motel Kamzoil, and frantically begs her father not to make her marry Lazar. Although initially angry, Tevye realizes Tzeitel loves Motel and yields to his daughter’s wishes.
To convince his wife Golde that Tzeitel should not marry Lazar, Tevye claims to have had a nightmare. He says that Golde’s deceased grandmother told him Tzeitel is supposed to marry Motel, and that Lazar’s late wife, Fruma-Sarah, threatened to kill Tzeitel if the two marry. Golde concludes the dream was a message from their ancestors, and Tzeitel and Motel arrange to be married.
Meanwhile, Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, falls in love with Perchik. They argue over the story of Leah and the place of old religious traditions in a changing world. The two dance together, which is considered forbidden by Orthodox Jewish tradition. Perchik tells Hodel that they just changed an old tradition.
At Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding, an argument breaks out after Lazar presents the newlyweds with gifts. When Tevye tries to speak to Lazar about the Torah, Lazar refuses to listen, arguing that the wedding should have been his all along. Minutes later, another argument breaks out over whether a girl should be able to choose her own husband. Perchik addresses the crowd and says that, since they love each other, it should be left for the couple to decide. He creates further controversy by asking Hodel to dance with him.
The crowd gradually warms to the idea and Tevye and Golde, then Motel and Tzeitel, join in dancing. The wedding proceeds with great joy. Suddenly, the military presence in the town, along with the constable, arrive and begin a pogrom, the “demonstration” which he had earlier warned Tevye was coming. The constable stops the attack on the wedding celebration after Perchik is wounded in the scuffle with the tsar’s men; however, he allows the men to continue destroying property in the village. Tevye and the immediate family stand still, until Tevye angrily orders them to clean up instead of standing around. Tevye silently asks why God allowed this to happen to them.
Months later, Perchik prepares to leave Anatevka for the revolution. He proposes to Hodel, and she accepts. When they tell Tevye, he is furious that they have decided to marry without his permission, but he again relents because they love each other. Tevye tells Golde his reasons for consenting to their daughter’s marriage, which leads them to re-evaluate their own arranged marriage. Tevye and Golde ultimately realize that, despite having been paired by a matchmaker, they do love each other.
Weeks later, Perchik is arrested in Kiev and is exiled to Siberia. Hodel decides to join him there. She promises Tevye that she and Perchik will be married under a canopy. Meanwhile, Tzeitel and Motel become parents, and the latter finally buys the sewing machine for which he has long scrimped and saved.
Tevye’s third daughter Chava falls in love with a Russian Orthodox Christian named Fyedka. Tevye tells Chava to be distant friends with Fyedka, because of the difference in their religions. When Chava eventually works up the courage to ask Tevye’s permission to marry Fyedka, Tevye tells her that marrying outside the family’s faith is against tradition. He forbids her from having any contact with Fyedka or from even mentioning his name. The next morning, Fyedka and Chava elope and are married in a Russian Orthodox church.
Golde learns of the marriage when she meets up with the priest. When a grief-stricken Golde tells Tevye about the marriage, he tells her that Chava is dead to the family and that they shall forget her altogether. Chava asks Tevye to accept her marriage. In a soliloquy, Tevye concludes that he cannot accept Chava marrying a non-Jew. He accuses her of abandoning the Jewish faith and disowns her.
One winter day, the Jews of Anatevka are notified that they have three days to leave the village or be forced out by the government. Tevye, his family and friends begin packing up to leave, heading for various parts of Europe, Israel, and the United States.
Yente, the Matchmaker, plans to emigrate to Jerusalem, and says goodbye to Golde with an embrace before departing. Lazar plans to emigrate to Chicago, to live with his former brother in law, whom he detests, but “a relative is a relative”. Lazar and Tevye share one last embrace before departing.
Tevye receives letters from Hodel mentioning that she is working hard while Perchik stays in the Siberian prison. It is hoped that when Perchik is released, they will join the others in the United States. Chava and her husband Fyedka come to Tevye’s house and tell the family that they are leaving for Kraków in Galicia, being unable to stay in a place that would force innocent people out. Tevye shows signs of forgiving Chava by murmuring under his breath “And God be with you”, silently urging Tzeitel to repeat his words to Chava. Golde calls out to Chava and Fyedka, telling them where they will be living in New York with a relative.
The Constable silently watches as the mass evacuation of Anatevka takes place. The community forms their circle at a crossroad one last time before scattering in different directions. Tevye spots the fiddler and motions to him to come along, symbolizing that even though he must leave his town, his traditions will always be with him.