By Rabbi Chaim Chazzan
May one put on tefillin while the Sefer Torah is out of the Aaron kodesh?
The Alter Rebbe writes in his Shulchan Aruch: If one takes off his tefillin before the Sefer Torah is returned to the aron kodesh, he should do so not in the presence of the Sefer Torah, but should turn aside [and face away from the Sefer Torah or alternatively he can remove his tefillin under his tallis]. The reverence with which a Sefer Torah is treated should be no less than the reverence shown by a talmid to his rebbe – and a talmid should not take off his tefillin in his rebbe’s presence, because he is demeaning his rebbe’s honor be uncovering his head in his presence.
From the Alter Rebbe’s wording, “Before the Sefer Torah is returned to the aron kodesh,” it would seem that this applies even while the Sefer Torah is covered with its mantel.
Based on the reasoning given, namely that it is dishonorable to bare one’s head before a Sefer Torah, it would appear that the same would apply to putting on tefillin. However, poskim note that baring one’s head is not demeaning when done for the holy purpose of putting on tefillin.
Another reason to be lenient: Some poskim say that perhaps the halacha was only said in days of old when the custom was to completely cover their heads with a turban, and thus removing tefillin would necessitate uncovering their heads. However, in later generations, we can easily remove tefillin without uncovering our head and it would then be permissible to put on or take off tefillin before a Sefer Torah.
 סי’ כה סעי’
 משנ”ב סי’ כה ס”ק נח בשם פמ”ג א”א ס”ק כט.
 שוע”ר סי’ לח סעי’
 כן ראיתי מדייקים מסתימת לשון המחבר, וכן נקטו בפשטות כמה ממחברי זמנינו. אבל בעמח”ס בן איש חי בספרו עוד יוסף חי פרשת חיי שרה אות ב’ הקיל.
 תהילה לדוד סי’ לח סעי’ יא לגבי תלמיד בפני רבו (ועי’ בשו”ת רבבות אפרים ח”א סי’ לב), ועפ”ז פסק כן בשו”ת שבט הקהתי ח”א סי’ כא לגבי לפני ספר תורה.
 החיד”א בברכ”י סי’ לח.
 שבט הקהתי שם.