The story opens in a small Jewish village in Poland in the early twentieth century. Yentl, the daughter of a Rabbi, enjoys studying the Torah and other holy texts. She has no desire to get married and become a housewife. After her father dies, Yentl cuts her hair short, dresses in her father's clothes, adopts the male name Anshel and leaves to study in the yeshiva in Bechev.
At the yeshiva, Yentl befriends and falls in love with a student named Avgidor. Yentl discovers that Avgidor is not married because his love, Hadass, rejected him. Yentl boards at the home of Hadass and her family. She learns that Avgidor's brother took his own life and that is the reason why Hadass declined to marry him.
Yentl decides to marry Hadass herself, as an act of revenge against the wrong done to Avgidor and to bring herself closer to Avgidor by association. She is able to keep up the pretence of being a man for several months, despite the stresses and strains that she feels through having to deceive so many people. Meanwhile, Avgidor marries a materialistic shopkeeper named Peshe who was abandonned by her previous husband.
The story ends abruptly with many issues seemingly unresolved. The only person to learn that Anshel is really a woman named Yentl is Avgidor, although Yentl does not declare her love for him.